We’ve got just over three weeks left in the regular season, which means this is the time of year when we should be focused on all the teams fighting it out for the final playoff spots.
But this year, that playoff race has been a bit of a dud – realistically, there are 19 teams still alive for the 16 post-season invitations. The Kings are the only team on the outside of the Western race with any sort of shot, and even that’s feeling like a real stretch after last night’s loss. Meanwhile, the East is basically down to the Leafs, Islanders and Lightning fighting for one spot, maybe two if the Bruins fade.
That leaves us with 11 teams that are basically done. Sure, you could still make a case that teams like the Flyers or Hurricanes aren’t quite dead yet. But according to the various sites that run these sorts of numbers, those teams both have less than a three–per cent shot at pulling off the comeback. And everyone else is way behind that.
So we’ve got 11 teams that are already dealing with the disappointment of a playoff miss. But not all disappointment is created equal. So today, let’s turn the focus to that group of 11 with a question: Based on expectations coming into the season, whose season has been the biggest disappointment?
We’ll count them down, starting with the least disappointing team and getting more depressing as we go.
#11: Vancouver Canucks
The expectations: Rock bottom. The Canucks were picked to finish dead last by many, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed in Vancouver. In fact, the only ones who didn’t seem to think this season would be a disaster were Trevor Linden, Jim Benning and friends in the front office. That had some fans worried that the Canucks would become the absolute worst-case scenario for a modern NHL franchise – a bad team that doesn’t realize it’s bad, and keeps grinding away year after year with no hope of real progress.
But then: Can you be well out of the playoffs in early March and still feel like the season was a success? The Canucks were still bad, but they didn’t finish dead last, or even come all that close. And they had a couple of stretches, notably a 4-0-0 start and a six-game win streak in January, that made them look like a real team. Those stretches didn’t last, and the second half has been ugly, but the beauty of rock-bottom expectations is that they’re not all that hard to exceed.
Maybe next year: The Canucks have to happy with Bo Horvat‘s season, and the decision to sell at the deadline with some solid moves brought in help for down the line. They’ll probably be bad again next year, but at least they seem headed in the right direction.
#10: New Jersey Devils
The expectations: Low. The Devils haven’t done a full-scale rebuild, but they’re clearly in a transition phase. This year was about seeing the kids develop, making sure Taylor Hall settled in, and hoping that a 30-year-old Cory Schneider would remain a top-tier option in goal.
But the playoffs? Even the most optimistic Devils’ fan would have had trouble buying that. Sportsnet’s analytics-based view had them dead last in the Eastern Conference, and just about everyone had them lumped in with the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets at the bottom of the Metro.
But then: Those Metro predictions turned out to be dead wrong about one of those three teams, but it wasn’t New Jersey. They hung around respectability a bit longer than most probably expected, but were a non-factor by the second half and are headed towards that last-place spot in the East.
Maybe next year: The youth has been OK; Pavel Zacha hasn’t blown anyone away but he hasn’t looked out of place as a teenager. Hall fought through injuries and saw his scoring rates take a slight dip, while Schneider had an off year. Overall, this season felt like a step back New Jersey. But that’s what we expected.
The expectations: Generally low, although the Hurricanes occasionally showed up as a sleeper playoff pick. Young rosters are always tough to project, and the goaltending looked like a weak spot. But if Cam Ward or Eddie Lack could pull out a surprise season, the Hurricanes had a shot.
But then: It’s fair to say that neither Ward or Lack pulled out a surprise season as goaltending all but doomed the Hurricanes. The fact that they’re not completely dead in the water by now despite that probably makes this season a modest win.
Maybe next year: They’re not going anywhere until the goaltending is fixed, and no team in the league is in worse shape in that department. But there are always goalies available in the off-season, and the Hurricanes certainly have the assets to go out and get one. Between a nice rookie season from teenager Sebastian Aho and the continued development of other young players, the Hurricanes aren’t in bad shape.
#8: Arizona Coyotes
The expectations: After following a truly miserable 2014–15 with some solid progress in 2015–16, the Coyotes were expected to continue along a path towards a playoff spot. That spot probably wouldn’t come this year, but you could see it on the horizon.
But then: The year has been a massive step backwards, one that’s had them locked into 29th overall throughout the second half.
Maybe next year: Given where the Coyotes are in their rebuild, you could forgive a bad year overall if it was highlighted by strong play from the young core. But that hasn’t really happened. Dylan Strome didn’t make the team, Max Domi missed time with injuries, Lawson Crouse underwhelmed and Anthony Duclair was a healthy scratch and rumored trade bait.
It hasn’t been a total disaster, and again, this team was a long shot to make the playoffs anyway. But the rebuild has hit a pothole, and now rookie GM John Chayka needs to make sure they can get back on track before they veer off the road entirely.
The expectations: They’d be in a real battle to continue their playoff streak after squeaking in for 2015–16, and losing Pavel Datsyuk was going to hurt. A few pre-season predictions still had them making the playoffs, maybe out of force of habit as much as anything, but the consensus seemed to be that they’d fall just short.
But then: They didn’t really come all that close, and will finish closer to 29th overall than to a wild card. If you’re a Red Wings fan, is that worse? Would it have been better to see the streak end on the final weekend, or do you prefer to just rip off the band-aid as soon as possible and move on? It’s hard to say, which is why the Red Wings wind up right around the middle of the pack.
Maybe next year: This is where it gets tricky. The Wings have started lurching towards rebuild mode, but with a so-so prospect pipeline and plenty of long-term contracts clogging up the cap, Ken Holland has his work cut out for him. Next year brings a new arena; it might also bring a new post-season streak, this time featuring consecutive misses.
#6: Winnipeg Jets
The expectations: The Jets would be good. Maybe not right away, but soon. They’d only be a borderline playoff team this season, but within another year or two, we were definitely looking at a contender.
If that sounded familiar, it’s because it’s been the pre-season prediction for the Jets pretty much every year since they returned to Winnipeg.
But then: The Jets hung in the playoff race for most of the first half, but their chances faded in the new year thanks to shaky goaltending and a bad habit of dropping four straight anytime they got back within range. The Central remains a tough division to crack, and the reemergence of the Pacific left one less wild card to shoot for. By March, the Jets were basically done.
That’s led to questions about Paul Maurice’s job security, and whether Kevin Cheveldayoff needs to get more aggressive in reshaping the roster. But with a breakout year from Patrik Laine and the continued emergence of Mark Scheifele as an elite centre, the outlook certainly isn’t all bad.
Maybe next year: The Jets will be good. Maybe not right away, but soon. They’ll only be a borderline playoff team next season, but within another year or two, we’re definitely looking at a contender.
The expectations: After a somewhat surprising playoff appearance in 2015–16, the young Flyers were looking to take the next step forward towards legitimate Cup-contender status.
But then: Over the season’s first three months, it looked like the Flyers might exceed expectations; by mid-December, a 10-game win streak had fans wondering if this team was already knocking on the door of the league’s top tier. But that streak was followed by 12 losses in their next 15 games, and by mid-January they were well back of the Metro’s big four and looking like playoff long shots.
All of that makes the Flyers a tough team to rank on this list. Based on what they seemed to be in December, they may be the biggest disappointment in the league right now. But if we’re looking at the expectations heading into the season, they’re not all that far back of where they thought they’d be.
Maybe next year: They need to fix the goaltending, and a rebound from Shayne Gostisbehere would be welcome, but otherwise the Flyers still seem like they’re in decent shape.
The expectations: With only one playoff appearance in six years, and coming off an off-season that saw their coach quit just weeks before training camp, expectations were low. In a tough Central, the Avs looked like a team that was closer to last in the division than to a playoff spot.
But then: Well, we were right about last place, although not many of us thought it would be dead last overall. And we certainly didn’t think it would be by a double-digit margin, as part of a season that may well be the worst of the salary-cap era. The Avalanche were the classic case of the team that hits rock bottom and then grabs a shovel.
That makes them the worst team in the league, by far. But the biggest disappointment? Not really, given how low expectations were coming in.
Maybe next year: You’d have to think that it can’t be any worse. But there are serious signs that the Avalanche need a major overhaul, and GM Joe Sakic’s decision not to start that process during the season is a risky one. They’ll move a core piece or two in Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog, and the return on those deals will be critical. If the front office can’t make some bold moves, next year might look a lot like this one – minus even small traces of hope.
#3: Buffalo Sabres
The expectations: Progress. That was all the Sabres needed from this year. Coming off two of the worst seasons in recent history, the Sabres had left laughingstock status behind last year. This one would be about continuing that momentum. If that meant a playoff spot, great, but it didn’t need to. They just needed progress.
But then: The Sabres on are pace to finish with fewer points than last season’s 82. And even if they finish strong and nudge ahead of last year’s total, the season will still feel like a write-off. Buffalo was never really in the mix, plunging out of contention by mid-November and never really recovering.
Part of that was injuries, with Jack Eichel, Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly all missing time early. But part of it was a faulty blueline that needs serious work, and head coach Dan Bylsma’s seat may be getting warm. And if we’re being honest, watching fellow bottom-feeders like Edmonton and Toronto leap past them can’t help matters.
Maybe next year: The pieces are still in place for the Sabres to be something special – Eichel in particular looks like a true franchise player, and Robin Lehner has had a decent year. There shouldn’t be any panic in Buffalo. But if significant progress was the goal this year, it’s going to be an absolute must-have next season.
#2: Dallas Stars
The expectations: The playoffs, for sure. Another division title, quite possibly. A trip to the final, or even a Stanley Cup championship? They’d have as good a shot as anyone.
But then: No team on this list had a bigger fall from their pre-season expectations than the Stars; some of us were picking them as the Western favourite. Instead, they flamed out almost immediately. They won’t just miss the playoffs — they’ll have never really been all that close.
Maybe next year: Jim Nill will be under plenty of pressure to address the goaltending, and rightly so. But the blueline may be an even bigger problem, and that won’t be an easy fix. They still have the talent up front to score with anyone in the league, so a return to the playoffs seems realistic. But after a season where they seemed like Cup contenders, just limping back into the post-season isn’t much to get excited about.
#1: Florida Panthers
The expectations: After the franchise’s best showing in two decades, the Panthers were looking to build on last year’s division title and compete for a Stanley Cup. Most of the pre-season predictions seemed to think that was a little too lofty, and that some regression was inevitable. And a strangely tumultuous off-season of front-office shifts was unusual for a contender. But at the very least, the Panthers had built a good young core that would make the playoffs, and maybe make some noise once they got there.
But then: The season went off the rails quickly, reaching its nadir with the late-November firing of Gerald Gallant and all the negative publicity that went with it. They were well back by the Christmas break, and the knives had come out among old-school types who scoffed at the team’s analytics-based direction.
But then came a second-half turnaround, and as the trade deadline approached the Panthers seemed to be right back in it. Instead, they collapsed, and have just one regulation win in their last 13.
Maybe next year: The Panthers still have a good young core, and are in better shape than several teams on this list. But they claim top spot based on the bigger picture. This is a franchise that’s struggled to build a fan base in South Florida, largely due to their failure on the ice – the team hasn’t won so much as a playoff round since their trip to the 1996 final.
On the one hand, you can’t really judge a hockey market until they’ve had some sustained success. On the other, if you don’t have that success eventually, you might never win the market over. The Panthers seemed like they were on track to finally show the league what they could do, building on the most successful regular season in team history. And then it all went bad, almost immediately, and in embarrassing fashion.
Even if they can get back on track quickly, the opportunity cost from this year’s wobble could be enormous. And that’s enough to make them the biggest disappointment out of this year’s also-rans.