Who’s Freaking Out? A look at the last place teams in the Eastern Conference (Part 1)
It’s still early in the 2018–2019 NHL season, but already teams and fan bases are starting to get an idea of what this upcoming season will look like for their respective clubs. Some are off to hot starts, like the Nashville Predators, who leads the NHL in points with 16, and the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins, who are both tied for second at 14. For those respective fan bases, those promising starts are giving them hope that hoisting a Stanley Cup (or at least a President’s Trophy) is a strong possibility this summer.
However, while Predators, Leafs, and Bruins fans are dreaming of future glory, it’s the opposite for those teams who are already starting this year in the cellar. Yes, there are over 70 games to go in the regular season, so there’s plenty of time to turn things around. That being said, a bad start can often be a sign of things to come, especially for clubs who may have felt pressure to win and make the playoffs this season.
So of the four division basement dwellers, who has the most to worry about? Which fans may be already throwing in the towel? And who is hoping that this start is just a bad stretch?
Let’s break each of the four teams down, and judge them on a scale of “freaking out Bruce Boudreau’s”, with 1 being “nothing to sweat about; this is the regular season and I always get my teams to overachieve” to 4 being “I’m going to curse unnaturally as much as possible on this behind the scenes HBO show in order to prove that I’m a good coach and can win in the playoffs, but deep down I know I am overmatched and screwed.”
This is part 1 that looks at the Eastern Conference. Part 2 will look at the Western Conference’s last-place teams.
Atlantic: Detroit Red Wings (4 points)
Pre-season projection: 67 points (7th in the Atlantic)
The Red Wings sport the worst point total in the NHL, compounded by a record of 1–7–2. And that record should be no surprise to anyone, as it has been a comedy of incompetence this year so far in “Hockeytown”. The Wings rank near the bottom of the NHL in goals for (29th) and goals against (31st), not to mention SRS (31st) and PDO (30th). So what has been the issue for the Red Wings thus far in 2018–2019?
The Wings are an interesting squad because their numbers don’t jump out you as overtly bad. They spend a lot of time in the penalty box, as they rank third in the NHL in penalties in minutes per game, but they don’t let it seem to hurt them too much, as their penalty kill percentage, at 80.49 percent, is 13th in the league, slightly above league average. Consequently, they get in a lot of physical contests, as their opponent's penalties in minutes per game rank 9th in the league, and the Wings rank 12th in power play success percentage at 25 percent, meaning they take advantage when opponents are in the box.
What probably has been the biggest contributor to Detroit’s slow start has been their ability to turn shots into goals. The Wings aren’t as bad as it seems when it comes to more advanced numbers, as their CF/60 (Corsi forced per 60) at 54.49 actually ranks 19th in the league, and their expected goals forced at 16.1 ranks 23rd, according to Corsica. Does that mean the Wings should be in the top of the league? Of course not. That being said, it does demonstrate that the Wings have had a rotten combination of bad luck and missed opportunities through these first 10 games, and may not be as bad as their overall point total suggests. A saving grace for this Red Wings offense and team overall is the solid play of 22-year-old wunderkind Dylan Larkin, who is tied for the team lead in points at 7. In his fourth season, Larkin may be en route to his best season yet as a young professional, which hopefully can translate into more goals on the offensive end and consequently more wins sooner rather than later.
Despite this glass-half-full look, this is the Wings we’re talking about. The club isn’t looking for moral victories. This franchise is to hockey what the Yankees are to baseball and the Celtics to basketball. And that doesn’t make things easier for head coach Jeff Blashill, who already went into this year on the hot seat after missing the playoffs in two of his last three seasons, not good considering he inherited this club from a legendary coach like Mike Babcock. This kind of start through 10 games certainly has upped the ante for Blashill to pull off some kind of miracle with this club soon if he wants to still be employed as an NHL coach.
Now, expectations for this club were meager for this club in the preseason, and even if the club turns it around, I don’t think the Wings are a playoff team by any stretch. To add salt in the wound, the future is worrisome for this club considering they lack roster flexibility due to their cap space issues. As of October 28th, the Red Wings have the highest cap hit in the NHL at over $86 million. And considering Little Caesars Arena just opened over a year ago, combined with the club’s lack of relevance the past couple of years, it’s safe to say that “Hockeytown” is panicking. It would not be surprising to see the Wings make a big change sooner rather than later, with it most likely coming from behind the bench.
The next 10 games will be interesting to watch not just for Wings fans frustrated by a lousy start, but also for Blashill, who probably is updating his resume at this moment after a 2–1 loss to Winnipeg Friday night in Detroit.
Rating: Four, piping hot, Bruce Boudreau’s.
Metropolitan: New York Rangers (7 points)
Pre-season projections: 72 points (NYR) (8th in the Metropolitan)
It’s been a rough start for winter sports in the New York metro area. The Knicks and the Nets are irrelevant in the NBA, and the Rangers sit in the basement of the Metropolitan Division (right now, the Rangers’ Long Island rival is the only hope for some kind of sports relevance in the metro). Of course, this shouldn’t be seen as too much of a surprise. Despite sporting one of the best (and most expensive) goaltenders in the NHL in Henrik Lundvquist, the Rangers were projected to be in the bottom of the Metropolitan by USA Today. So in reality, the Rangers are just matching expectations, as sobering as that may be.
The Rangers’ main weakness so far this year is on the offensive end, as they rank 28th in the NHL in goals for. The Rangers actually do a good job of creating opportunities for themselves on the offensive end, as they rank 14th in the league in CF/60 (Corsi Forced per 60), which demonstrates that they are getting a fair number of shots. But the Rangers offense just has struggled to convert, as they are 27th in shot percentage (7.6 percent) and their Goals Forced percentage sits at 38.24 percent, which is second worst in the league (only better than the Red Wings). Center Mika Zibanejad and wing Chris Kreidler have provided Rangers fans some cases for optimism, as they are first and third in team points at 9 and 7, respectively, and they both are under 30 (25 for Zibanejad and 27 for Kreidler).
Defensively, one could argue that the Rangers should be seeing better results. The Rangers front office has invested a lot of money when it comes to stopping the puck, as 45 percent of their team salary is committed to defense (33.3 percent to defense; 11.7 to goaltending, according to Cap Friendly), so New York holding their own on this end of the rink should be an expected result. Unfortunately, the numbers are pretty mediocre. They currently rank 19th out of 31 in total goal against, and their goals against per 60 ranks 20th in the league at 2.67. Add that with a Corsi per 60 that ranks 28th in the NHL at 58.94 and an expected goals against total of 21.89 that ranks 25th, and it goes to show that the Rangers, while talented on the defensive end, are not making things easier on themselves in this category, which has contributed to their rough start.
As stated before, many were predicting the Rangers to go through their share of struggles. The Rangers replaced former coach Alain Vigneault with David Quinn, who earned his stripes as a coach in the AHL with Lake Erie Monsters and most recently at Boston University, where he made the Terriers a national power in the college ranks. That being said, this is the Rangers, one of the Original Six NHL franchises (much like the Red Wings). It only took Vigneault one poor season to undo all the good work he did (remember, he took the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Finals his first season). Quinn will have a long leash, as he is expected to develop the young talent on this squad, such as 2017 first round pick Filip Chytil. But if things get ugly and they don’t show promise relatively soon, the heat will certainly turn up on Quinn in a New York Minute.
Rating: Two semi-warm Bruce Boudreau’s.