Every preseason, NHL fans make endless predictions on how the standings will look come the following April. Sometimes we're right with the majority of our predictions, other times we're wrong, but most of the time, we fail to predict the few teams that breakout and collapse. When the season starts, these teams catch us off guard and, very often, we don't know what to make of them. Last season, the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks surprised us with their strong play from the beginning of the season, while the Ottawa Senators disappointed us with their all-around mediocrity. This season, there are already a few teams that are significantly better than expected and several teams that are a lot worse than predicted. Of the breakout teams, which one is likely this year's Cinderella story and, of the teams that have fallen apart, which one is unlikely to rebound?
Which team that has gotten off to a surprisingly slow start do you expect to remain a disappointment?
Robert Vollman: Minnesota Wild - The biggest disappointment so far is the Minnesota Wild. I had them pegged for 6th overall at season's end, but they're scoring only two goals a game, have fallen apart defensively, and have but one victory so far this season. Perhaps Marian Gaborik was far more essential to the Wild than I realized, and even a player as talented as Martin Havlat can't fill his skates. Nicklas Backstrom and his solid .913 save percentage can't be blamed, but their defensive struggles were made worse by two awful starts from Josh Harding. Their lone bright spot is the play of Eric Belanger, with 8 points in 7 games and one of the few forwards whose defensive game is at the level we've come to expect of the Minnesota Wild. I think the Wild can still turn things around, but it's obvious that I misjudged Minnesota when I saw them as a guaranteed playoff-bound team.
Timo Seppa: Nashville Predators - Led by the outstanding premiere of rookie goaltender Pekka Rinne, the Predators were a bubble team in 2008-09, just missing the playoffs by 3 points. While fans in the Volunteer State might expect to take the next step this season, VUKOTA was tepid on the Preds, projecting another postseason near-miss at 86 points. A fortunate 2-4-1 after being outscored 10 to 23 in their first 7 games, Nashville looks like they will fall short of our already conservative predictions. Their complete lack of offense stems from a mediocre and aging (5th oldest in NHL) roster: no Predator forward was projected to have a GVT greater than +8.8. The loss of defensive defenseman Greg Zanon (+7.0 DGVT) may help explain their lackluster defensive performance; that both netminders have suffered less than stellar results (Dan Ellis .903, 2-1-1, Pekka Rinne .894, 0-3) suggests declining team defense. Making everything worse, of course, is having to play six games apiece against Central Division stalwarts Detroit and Chicago, as well as young and improving teams in Columbus and St. Louis. It’s not outside the realm of possibility––if things break badly––for the Predators to end up as the worst team in the Western Conference.
Richard Pollock: Boston Bruins - The most disappointing team this season has been the Boston Bruins. With the recent loss of both Milan Lucic and Marc Savard and the trade of Chuck Kobasew, the Bruins are now without the offensive depth they had throughout last season. Luckily for Boston fans, their team is playing in arguably the NHL’s weakest division—the Northeast Division. So, the Bruins still have a chance to win the division, but this team was supposed to be at the top of the Eastern Conference standings with the Capitals, the Flyers and the Penguins. In fact, Puck Prospectus had the Bruins ranked as the third best team in the NHL (over 100 projected points), just behind the Blackhawks and Capitals and in front of the Red Wings and Penguins. Right now, there is little chance of this team finishing that high in the standings. The Bruins will be without Savard’s 14.3 projected GVT for at least the next month and without the physical presence of Milan Lucic (projected 8.4 GVT) for about the same amount of time. Combine that with the poor early season play of Tim Thomas (.896 save percentage) and the team’s overall poor defensive play and the Bruins may be digging themselves a hole that they won’t be able to get out of.
Andrew Rothstein: Florida Panthers - Florida, who managed to outscore their opponents last year despite missing the playoffs, and have one of the top five goaltenders in Tomas Vokoun, was a favorite of VUKOTA going into the year. The Panthers have plenty of youth, but aside from the re-signed David Booth, who only has 1 point and a 4.8 shooting percentage so far, the offense is lacking playmakers. Noone has more than 2 goals and 4 points in 2009-10, the team is 27th on the power-play and second to last in goals with 13. VUKOTA didn't expect much out of the offense (the projection system had them 20th), but they're going to have to produce a few more goals if they want to contend for a playoff spot. Perhaps Michael Frolik and Nathan Horton aren't as ready as we thought they were to take the next step. The goaltending tandem of Vokoun and Anderson almost took this team to the postseason last year and that's unlikely to happen with a new backup goaltender this season. Scott Clemmensen looked great last year behind the New Jersey Devils zone defense, but despite his initial success, he'll have a more difficult time replicating those numbers away from the Prudential Center. Overall, I'm starting to see an offense that is more of a liability than we expected, which is why the Panthers might not be as much of a contender as we previously thought they were.
Every year there is a team that comes from out of nowhere to compete with the best in the NHL. What team will that be this year?
Robert Vollman: Colorado Avalanche - It was very difficult to choose the biggest surprise since everyone I had in my bottom four are off to hot starts and have between 10-14 points. I knew I was wandering out on a limb when I pegged the Rangers for 3rd to last, but they've pinned their hopes on the notoriously injury-prone, unpredictable and the inconsistent, so I still believe that at best they'll be fighting for a playoff spot at season's end. As for Ottawa, I obviously underestimated them, but they're more of a bubble team that's winning the close ones. I had Phoenix slotted for dead last in the NHL, but buoyed by amazing defense and goaltending, they're off to a great start, but one that just can't last.
Eventually I settled on the Colorado Avalanche as this year's most likely Cinderella story. Craig Anderson's fine play in the net is no surprise to anyone that read our Summer Skate series or our season previews, but the exceptional play of their young talent took me completely by surprise. I really didn't think that the Avalanche had the depth of talent to go anywhere, and that this season would be focused on rebuilding around their youngsters. Perhaps Chicago and Colorado are teaching us that the new NHL is becoming increasingly youth-friendly and more teams ought to be passing up on the established journeymen veterans in favor of the up and coming. So far Colorado has struck me as the real deal, and rather than 2nd to last I should have included them in the playoff picture.
Timo Seppa: Los Angeles Kings - The Kings finally bit the bullet. Turning over their roster to get a full 2 years younger last season, they took one step backwards to enable themselves to take two or three steps forward. Now, they’re ready to take one of those steps forward, while potentially getting even younger with some in-season callups. Leading the way, 22 year old C Anze Kopitar has arrived: the dynamic youngster was tied for 3rd in points (with his new linemate, the revitalized 33 year old LW Ryan Smyth) through Monday. 19 year old D Drew Doughty and 22 year old D Jack Johnson already provide an offensive presence on the blueline––a hallmark of contending teams––and there is potential of more firepower arriving in top prospect D Thomas Hickey and 19 year old Russian D Vyacheslav Voinov. G Jonathan Quick has had a decent enough start to the season (save percentage .900, 5-3), but Los Angeles has hopes that 21 year old G Jonathan Bernier may be even better when he gets a chance. The real promise is in 2010-11 and beyond, but look for the LA Kids to exceed this season’s VUKOTA projection by half a dozen points, taking them out of the Pacific Division cellar and into playoff contention with 88-90 points.
Richard Pollock: New York Rangers - The Colorado Avalanche are stealing many headlines across the NHL with their torrid start, but the most surprising team to me so far this season has been the New York Rangers. So far, the Rangers have scored thirteen more goals than they have allowed. John Tortorella has told his team to “shut up and play” and so far that mindset has worked quite well. If the Rangers continue to ice a healthy Marian Gaborik and continue to receive improved defensive play from Wade Redden, this could be a team to be reckoned with come the spring. VUKOTA only projected Gaborik to play 52 games this season, but if he plays more than 70, then the Rangers are a very, very dangerous team. Gaborik, when healthy, is a dynamic even strength player (one point-per-game at even strength this season) and gives the Blueshirts the sniper they have not had in some time (six goals in nine games). Of course, the Rangers will only go as far as Henrik Lundqvist takes them, but he is a top ten NHL netminder (.927 save percentage so far this season), so that could be quite far. Considering this Rangers team looked far worse last season and still managed to take Washington to a seventh game in the first round, what’s to say this team cannot make a run this season?
Andrew Rothstein: Buffalo Sabres - Anytime you have a goaltender like Ryan Miller in net, you'll have a chance to compete in every game you play. The Sabres were a playoff-caliber team last year, until Miller went down with a high ankle sprain for a large part of the second half of the season, and that really hurt the Sabres in goal. If the Michigan native can remain healthy, he won't continue to post a .938 save percentage, but he'll remain one of the top ten goaltenders in the league. The Sabres also have an underrated group on offense, with players such as Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek, and Jason Pominville all projected to post GVTs above 10 for the year. Buffalo has also outshot their opponents 229 to 157, and it doesn't hurt to have a wide open division where the clear favorite is currently stumbling. The Sabres have not gotten off to a good start on the power-play (15.6 %) nor on the penalty kill (73.7 %), but they have still managed to outscore their opponents overall (18 to 12) and at even strength (12 to 5). The 24 year old Clarke MacArthur has also been a pleasant surprise on offense for Buffalo. If the 2003 3rd round pick can continue to perform well, the Sabres should be in good shape going forward. The only downside to Buffalo early on is that they have an above average even strength shooting percentage and even strength save percentage combined, which based on Irreverent Oiler Fans' Vic Ferrari's research, indicates that they're due for some regression to the mean. Even still, in an open Northeast division, they don't necessarily have to be Stanley Cup favorites to take home the division crown.
This column was authored by the staff of Puck Prospectus.