You can call them the NHL’s dirty dozen. Or you could just call them the most disappointing stories in the NHL so far this year. Either way, if you’re a fan of one of the 12 teams below, you probably aren’t picking up much in the way of good vibes these days.
That’s life in the NHL, where not every team can meet expectations. But that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow when it’s December and your team is already fading, or worse. In fact, it can be tempting to grab a shovel and pile even more dirt on a team that’s floundering this late in the year.
Well, not today. We’re into the holiday season, which is supposed to be a time of charity and goodwill. So let’s stay positive. Let’s take each of the league’s 12 most disappointing teams, and see if we can come up with three nice things to say about them.
And for some added fun, we’ll do this in order of difficulty — starting with the easiest teams to say nice things about, and working our way down to the toughest calls.
The negative: After going out in the first round for two straight years, the Blackhawks might not even make it to the post-season this time around. They’re currently outside of a playoff spot despite a strong year from Corey Crawford, and their aging core and tight cap situation will make bringing in significant reinforcements all but impossible.
We’ve been incorrectly predicting the demise of the Hawks’ mini-dynasty for years now, but this feels like it really could be it. So can we come up with three positive things to say to make Chicago fans feel a little better? Let’s try.
Positive thought #1: You won the Stanley Cup in 2010.
Positive thought #2: You won the Stanley Cup in 2013.
Positive thought #3: You won the Stanley Cup in 2015. Seriously, you could finish dead last for the next decade and nobody will feel bad for you.
See? This is easy.
OK, granted, the Blackhawks were the tutorial level here. Consider that a warmup. Let’s up the difficulty with the next team.
The negative: After failing to qualify for the playoffs last year for the first time since 1990, the Wings look set to make it two straight misses.
Positive thought #1: The new arena is nice. And you didn’t even have to pretend to be moving to Houston to get it.
Positive thought #2: Let’s be honest — the best thing that could happen to the Red Wings would be to bottom out and convince management that it’s time for a full-fledged rebuild. Ken Holland still seems to be resisting that idea, but a 70-point season might leave him with no choice.
Positive thought #3: Wings fans might get to watch Steve Yzerman win another Cup this year, so there’s that too. But yeah, it’s mainly the rebuild.
That one was slightly tougher. Let’s keep going…
10. Dallas Stars
The negative: After plummeting out of the playoffs last year, the Stars brought back Ken Hitchcock and finally went out and made the Ben Bishop trade we’d all been waiting for. That seemed to clear a path back into contention for the Central title. Instead, they’re 31 games in and are outside the playoffs in terms of points percentage.
Positive thought #1: Hitchcock’s defensive approach seems to be kicking in. The Stars rank fourth in shots allowed per game, and they rank second behind only the Blues in expected goals allowed per 60 minutes of 5v5.
Positive thought #2: Bishop hasn’t looked great, but he’s also had to deal with some minor injuries. He’ll be fine once he can stay healthy. (Big goalies in their 30s with a history of injury problems tend to stay healthy, right?)
Positive thought #3: It was only a few days ago that the Stars were riding a five-game win streak and looking like they had things figured out. A lot can change in a week in today’s NHL, but the Stars still look very much like a playoff team, even if they may not be the top contender we were hoping for.
Everyone feeling hopeful? So far so good. Here’s where we ramp up the challenge.
The negative: You saw the 10-game losing streak that basically doomed their season, yes?
Positive thought #1: If you can look past the record, there’s a lot going right for a team that’s still emerging from a rebuild. The young players look good, Sean Couturier has somehow transformed into an elite offensive threat, and Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek are rebounding from disappointing years. We can build on this.
Positive thought #3: They’ve won three straight since that losing streak, and with the Metro being a weird traffic jam this year, they’re not completely out of it if they can stay hot.
Feeling positive now, Philadelphia fans? [Battery ricochets off forehead.] Awesome. Let’s stay in the Metro for our next team.
The negative: After years of being the team that was sneaky good except for its goaltending, the Hurricanes went out during the off-season and fixed that problem. Two months into the season, they look like a team that’s sneaky good except for its goaltending.
Positive thought #1: We have 75 games in Chicago that tell us that Scott Darling might be good, and 20 in Carolina that suggest otherwise. When in doubt, trust the bigger number. True, even 75 games isn’t much and the Hawks are a very different team than the Hurricanes, but there’s no reason to panic on Darling quite yet.
Positive thought #2: It sounds like we’re closing in on the end of the ongoing ownership questions, which might buy Hurricanes fans a whole week of not hearing the word “Nordiques.”
Positive thought #3: As always seems to be the case, the Hurricanes’ underlying numbers suggest they deserve a better fate. They have both the best 5v5 possession and expected goals percentage in the entire league right now, and that generally translates to wins over time. Not in Carolina, mind you, but generally.
Speaking of analytics, let’s switch gears to a team at the other end of the spectrum…
The negative: After five straight first-place finishes in the division, the Ducks look like they might not even make the playoffs at all.
Positive thought #1: No team has had a worse run of injuries, with Corey Perry being the latest to go down, so even if the Ducks do miss you won’t hear many fans claiming it means all that much in the big picture. Some years, everything goes wrong and you have to just shrug and live with it. That could be this year for Anaheim.
Positive thought #2: Almost the entire core of this team is locked into expensive long-term contracts, so as long as they get healthy and this year is just a fluke, they’ve got plenty of time to contend again. Of course, if it’s not a fluke, they’re in really bad shape, but that’s not a very positive thought, so let’s skip past it and close strong.
Positive thought #3: Hey, at least the season won’t end with a crushing Game 7 loss for a change.
We’re halfway through our happy thoughts. Time to scroll way down the standings to get to our next team.
The negative: They had the worst start of the cap era, and maybe of all time, so their season was basically over by November. And this was after years of rebuilding and a series of “win-now” moves in the off-season.
Positive thought #1: OK, sure, this season has been a nightmare. But the Coyotes are still flush with good young players. A playoff chase would have been nice, but this team is still about the future, and that looks reasonably strong. Clayton Keller on his own looks like a decent starting point.
Positive thought #2: Dylan Strome absolutely dominated the AHL, and now he’s back in the NHL, presumably for good. He hasn’t done much so far, but the kid isn’t even 21 yet. There’s still a decent chance he’ll turn out to be a top-six regular.
Positive thought #3: You’re going to get a ton of assets in the Oliver Ekman-Larsson trade. (Yeah, I know, but you’ll talk yourself into it by the time it happens.)
In case you’re wondering, we also considered doing the Penguins (but they’ve won two Cups and don’t need our help), Avalanche (but they’re way better than last year), Canucks (but they’re exceeding expectations), Rangers (but they’ve rebounded after a bad start) and Wild (but they’re at least holding down a playoffs spot based on points percentage).
On to the top five…
The negative: After the seismic shock of having one good season in two decades, the Panthers underwent not one but two identity crises, and are driving hard in the direction of dead last. Oh, and their star goaltender is hurt.
Positive thought #1: There’s still a ton of good young talent here, from Aleksander Barkov to Jonathan Huberdeau to Aaron Ekblad. That’s a solid core. Surround it with some depth, goaltending, proven coaching and management that has a strategy beyond “do the opposite of whatever the last guys did,” and you’re onto something.
Positive thought #2: They beat the league’s top two teams, the Lightning and Blues, in back-to-back games. Yes, it was during the first week of the season and they lost nine of their next 11. Look, we’re reaching here.
Positive thought #3: There probably won’t be another expansion draft until 2019, which might give the Panthers enough time to figure out how not to give away two-thirds of a scoring line in exchange for, uh, cap space they won’t use.
Admittedly, finding three positives for these teams is getting pretty tough. Luckily, this next fan base is well-known for their optimism and lighthearted sense of whimsy.
The negative: A terrible start left them well back of the playoff race. The shooters were ice cold, Carey Price looked awful and then got hurt, and by the time they lost 6–0 to the Maple Leafs on home ice, the word was that they were ready to throw in the towel and start over.
Positive thought #1: The Habs have been reasonably good ever since hitting that low point. They won five straight when Price got back, and even briefly clawed back into a playoff spot. You guys play in the Atlantic Division, so making the playoffs won’t be all that hard. Unless somebody other than Tampa or Toronto can string together a few games, or the schedule-maker finally lets the Bruins play a few games, you might even be able to sneak into the last spot with something in the range of 90 points (while a Metro team misses entirely with 95).
Positive thought #2: All of this will be worth it when you finish third, face the Leafs in the playoffs and knock them out in the first round.
Positive thought #3: The inevitable “Patrick Roy as GM” era is going to be super fun. Especially when he names himself coach halfway through the first season.
OK, this is getting downright difficult. Up next on the countdown is… oh. Oh no.
The negative: In a season that started with all sorts of optimism and even some legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations, the Oilers are instead back in their usual spot near the bottom of the West.
Positive thought #1: You have Connor McDavid. You don’t get to complain about anything, ever.
Positive thought #2: OK, that first one might have come across a bit harsh. But good lord, that kid is ridiculous. He’s one of those rare players who virtually guarantees his team at least a few Stanley Cups all on his own. Maybe we all got ahead of ourselves thinking it would happen this year, but even the Oilers can’t possibly screw this up. Probably. Maybe.
Positive thought #3: Also, every other fan base is gleefully burying you guys right now, so think how much fun it will be when you win the draft lottery again and everyone else has a league-wide aneurysm.
Man, I’m not sure I can do this anymore. Please tell me we’re at least done with the Canadian teams. Nobody can be more depressed than Edmonton fans, right?
2. Ottawa Senators
The negative: Hoping to build on last year’s playoff run, the Senators instead look like they’re going to miss altogether. The goaltending is a mess, the Matt Duchene blockbuster has yet to pay off at all, and they’re seven points back of a playoff spot with a ton of teams to pass.
And somehow, that’s not even the bad news. These days, Erik Karlsson sounds like he could have one eye on the door, and the Senators might be open to at least thinking about moving him and everyone else.
Whether it’s a coaching change, another big trade, or something else, this is really starting to feel like a team where something big has to happen before the season slips away. If it hasn’t already.
Positive thought #1: It’s still more likely than not that the Karlsson situation is resolved and he sticks around with a new deal. Unless ownership and management foolishly turn this into a war of words, any gap between the two sides should be manageable, and suggestions otherwise still smell a little like wishful thinking from fans in other markets. Plus, at least for now Karlsson is back to saying the right things. There’s too much smoke here to say there’s no fire, but sometimes a fire can be extinguished before it does any serious damage.
Positive thought #2: The team’s biggest problem has been Craig Anderson, and it’s still too early to say he won’t rebound. Yes, goalies at his age (36) often decline, but they usually don’t go from .926 to sub-.900 almost overnight. If Anderson gets it figured out, the wins will come.
Positive thought #3: While Eugene Melnyk’s accountants may not agree, bottoming out might not be the worst thing in the world for the Senators. They haven’t picked in the top 10 since 2011 or the top five since 2001. It’s a credit to the team’s scouts that they keep finding good young players with later picks, and the prospect pipeline is decent right now. But in a division with Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel, there are worse plans than riding out this year, stripping it down, and then shooting for the first overall pick in 2019.
Uh, except that they might not have that pick thanks to the Duchene trade. OK, I’m officially depressed.
Hey, at least it can’t possibly get any worse. [Checks list.] Yeah, I quit.
The negative: [Gestures furiously at the entire season.] This. All of this.
Positive thought #1: Pass.
Positive thought #1: Really? I have to? Fine: Eventually some super volcano will erupt and none of this will matter and OK, OK, let me try again.
Positive thought #1: Look on the bright side, maybe you’ll win the draft lottery and wait that one was just mean, sorry, I can do this…
Positive thought #1: [Deep sigh.] I mean, Jack Eichel, right? He’s good. If he can channel his energy into continuing to improve, and not into going on an arena-wide rampage like Jean-Claude Van Damme in Sudden Death like he seems to be on the verge of doing every time we see him these days, the Sabres at least have a franchise player to build around. That’s more than some teams have.
Positive thought #2: As long as they don’t overplay their hand, they should get a decent return on Evander Kane. And it sounds like they could be ready to move other pieces. That’s good news; when you’re dead last, continuity is not your friend.
Positive thought #3: Honestly, it’s probably the volcano thing.