All the big free agents are off the board and the trade dominoes have fallen. While some players still need homes for next season, the difference-makers are gone: Ryan Kesler, Jason Spezza and Matt Niskanen among them. Will a David Legwand or Dany Heatley turn a team's fortunes? Probably not. So while it's very early, let's take a look at one of the more intriguing subplots of the upcoming season: The Connor McDavid Derby.
The ultra-skilled Erie Otters center is one of those prospects that people speak of with outsized reverence and as it stands now, he's the No. 1 contender to go first overall at the 2015 draft in Florida. If American pivot Jack Eichel unseats him, it will be because Eichel had an insane freshman season at Boston University, in which case teams will be just as excited to land the big American teen as they would have his Canadian counterpart. Defenseman Noah Hanifin rounds out an incredible trio of future stars.
In whittling down which teams will likely skulk in the NHL's basement, I considered a number of factors such as divisional strength, goaltending and what the worst-case scenario would be. This eliminates teams such as Toronto and Ottawa, since they get to play each other (and Florida and Buffalo) and as of now, have two capable backup goalies in case the starter flames out (James Reimer for Jonathan Bernier and Robin Lehner for Craig Anderson – or does Lehner take over anyway?). Similarly, I can't see New Jersey being too bad, even if their Home for Aged Czechs strategy runs out of steam: Cory Schneider will steal you some games and they won't even be the worst team in their division. Here are my top three:
On the surface, it's easy to ask, "how can a team with Eric Staal, Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner be really bad?" Well, talk to the 2013-14 Canes. They finished second-last in the Metropolitan Division and only because the Islanders lost John Tavares to a season-ending knee injury at the Olympics. Toss in the loss of faceoff ace Manny Malhotra and a bad possession team gets worse. The blueline is laden with players the Maple Leafs didn't want and Cam Ward is not the same netminder that won this team the Stanley Cup oh so many years ago. He'll platoon with Anton Khudobin and even if the affable Kazakh takes over, I'm not sure there's enough ceiling there.
Yes, we're talking about the Oilers again and I'm sorry. Edmonton will be better this year, but the brutal Pacific Division hurts them. Will Mark Fayne and Nikita Nikitin help the blueline? Marginally, yes. But this team still doesn't have a Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith or Mark Giordano. I'm a huge Leon Draisaitl fan, but I don't expect him to become a dominant force that can put Ryan Getzlaf on his heels right away. And Ben Scrivens can steal a game here or there, but we saw that last year and 'The Professor' could only do so much – the Oilers still finished last in the conference.
The Sabres were bad in epic proportions last year, so even though I like the veteran additions they made in Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges (plus the repatriation of Matt Moulson), I still think they need another year to be competitive. Sam Reinhart will get his feet wet and perhaps Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov have longer stays, but that should be mission No. 1: prep for the future. Ryan Miller is gone from the crease and despite his fall in St. Louis, he was great for Buffalo when the Sabres couldn't score in front of him. This season won't be as bad as the last and many positives will spring from it, but it's still going to result in a lot of losses.