I’m confused. Are you confused? Because I’m confused.
Five weeks into the NHL season, certain things are starting to make sense. Good teams are good, bad teams are bad, and most of the league is stuck somewhere in the middle. And that’s fine – I can get my head around that. But there are certain teams that I just can’t figure out.
Obviously, when you’re talking about confusing teams, you’re going to get a lot of overlap with the category of surprising teams. But those two groups aren’t the same thing. For example, I picked the Dallas Stars to come out of the West this year, but so far they’ve been losing more than they win. That’s a surprise. But it’s not all that confusing – they’ve had a ton of injuries and last year’s bad goaltending has been even worse. Surprising, sure, but the Stars aren’t especially hard to figure out.
But other teams are. So today, let’s run through the five teams I still can’t get my head around through the season’s first month or so.
We may as well start with the obvious choice, since I’m pretty sure the Predators are the one team that would show up on every “Most Confusing” list around the league right now. They came into the season as a trendy pick to win the Central Division, if not the Stanley Cup, but so far they’ve barely been competitive.
The question is why, and that’s where smarter folks than me have tried to sort things out without much success. On paper, the Predators shouldn’t be all that different from last year. They’ve got the same coach, same system, same goaltender, and aside from one trade, the roster hasn’t changed all that much.
And yes, that one trade was a big one, sending Shea Weber to Montreal for P.K. Subban. We’ve got years to argue about that deal, but so far Weber looks unstoppable for the Habs while Subban has been merely OK in Nashville. But could a single one-for-one trade, even an old-fashioned blockbuster, really have short-circuited an entire franchise?
That doesn’t seem reasonable. It’s more likely that a very good blueline had been masking the fact that Pekka Rinne hasn’t been very good lately, and ill-timed goal-scoring slumps by forwards like Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen helped things snowball. And maybe we’re just overreacting to a tough start. The Predators had won three straight before Tuesday night’s loss to Toronto, after all, so maybe they’re already back on track.
Here’s hoping that’s true. Because that Nashville/Montreal Stanley Cup final would be too much fun to give up on now.
Columbus Blue Jackets
They were one of the worst teams in the league last season. Their cap situation is a mess, quite possibly the worst in the league. Their management group is supposed to be smart, but keeps doing weird things. And their coach just endured one of the most humiliating performances in international hockey history.
The Columbus Blue Jackets should be really bad.
And they are! At least according to most of the stats that matter. Their possession game is awful, for example, ranking near the bottom of the league.
And yet, they’re still hanging around the Eastern playoff race. Their special teams have been fantastic, with the power play ranking as the league’s best. And every now and then, they show up and absolutely destroy a team that’s supposed to way better than them. They did it against the Canadiens in that infamous 10-0 win a few weeks ago, and fine, maybe you call that a fluke and write it off. But then they did it again last week, pumping eight goals past a Blues team that was supposed to be a Cup contender.
I think I know what’s happening here. The Blue Jackets look like the classic case of a team that’s succeeding (barely) based on runaway percentages, and that should crash and burn as soon as a little bit of regression kicks in. At that point, John Tortorella’s head will explode, everyone will get fired, and the rebuild will begin.
That all seems reasonable. But just when I’ll feel like I’ve got it figured out, they’ll go out and beat the Rangers 14-1 on Friday and I’ll be right back at square one.
The Flyers have a ton of talent up front, one of the best young defenseman in the league, two excellent rookies, and have been patiently building a contender for a few years now. So how come they’re struggling?
Easy. Their goaltending stinks. Next.
And it would be nice if it were that easy. But unlike a team like the Stars or Hurricanes who came into the season knowing they had question marks in goal, the Flyers had every reason to think they were OK. As much as he struggled in Columbus, Steve Mason has been good over four years in Philadelphia. And Michal Neuvirth was coming off a breakthrough year. Sure, it probably wasn’t realistic to expect both guys to shine, but you figured that one of them would at least give you a decent starter.
Instead, they’ve both been awful, leaving the Flyers with the league’s worst save percentage for most of the year. And nobody seems to be able to figure out what’s going on, let alone what the Flyers could do about it.
I’m leaning towards “Wait patiently and hope things sort themselves out before the season is a write-off.” But then again, the Flyers’ GM isn’t exactly a guy who’s been known to hesitate when he senses a problem in a crease.
Speaking of teams paying a price for bad goaltending, the Flames’ weakness in net cost them any shot at the playoffs last season. So they went out and fixed it… we thought.
I’ve always been a Brian Elliott fan, and I’ve never understood why the Blues always seemed so eager to hand the reins over to somebody else. When the Flames scooped him up at a discount, it seemed like the perfect move for a team that was otherwise well-positioned to push for a playoff spot. Backing him up with the dependable Chad Johnson was smart insurance.
Instead, both guys have struggled, and the Flames record reflects that. But it’s not just the goaltending. Johnny Gaudreau got off to a slow start, as did Sean Monahan. Both have shown signs of pulling out of it, but the slumps went on long enough that Brian Burke felt the need to start lighting fires and now Gaudreau may be out for weeks with a broken finger. Meanwhile, a blueline that was supposed to be a strength has struggled, and now there’s talk that Dougie Hamilton could be trade bait.
None of that really makes sense. But I keep coming back to Elliott, and how sure I was that he’d stop the bleeding in Calgary. Maybe the naysayers were right – Elliott was a product of the Blues system. Any goaltender with pads and a pulse can have success under Ken Hitchcock in St. Louis, right?
St. Louis Blues
The Blues came into the season as one of the league’s most intriguing teams. It felt like this really was the last chance for the team’s older core, with Ken Hitchcock already pre-announcing his departure and GM Doug Armstrong making noises about a new direction. After last year’s trip to the conference final, the question was whether this team could make one last run at that elusive first Cup win.
Instead, after an impressive 3-0-0 start, they’ve spent most of the last month on the fringe of the playoff picture. And a lot of that is due to a so-so start from Jake Allen, who was supposed to finally establish himself as a full-time starter. Instead, the Blues have been getting shelled. So far this season, they’ve lost 8-4 to the Blue Jackets, and 6-2 to the Stars, and 5-0 to the Rangers.
Now it feels like everything is in play. A mid-season trade to bring in Marc-Andre Fleury? Sure. Kevin Shattenkirk for Rick Nash? Why not! Getting a solid effort out of Nail Yakupov? Let’s not get crazy. But still, St. Louis feels like a team waiting for something to happen.
All that said, the Blues seem like they’ll be OK. Especially at 5-on-5, they’ve been a very good possession team with lousy PDO, and that suggests that things will turn around. The question is how much patience they’ll have. When you’re down to just one year to work with, even a month’s worth of confusion can take its toll.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.