We’re now two weeks into the season. How’s your team doing?
We asked that question one week ago, as part of a post that was all about optimism. Bad starts aren’t always fatal. Some teams recover just fine. There’s a chance that everything will turn out OK.
But that was a whole week ago. We were all so young and full of hope back then. Now that we’re two weeks in, any teams that are still underachieving might be wondering if it’s time to start panicking. And the answer is yeah, it might be.
But like any bad situation, the first step is to figure out what we’re dealing with. Not all bad starts are created equal, after all. Today, let’s get those struggling teams into triage, as we work our way through ten types of bad starts to an NHL season.
The “Maybe we should have seen this coming” bad startWhat happens: A team that isn’t very good suddenly stumbles into some optimism. Maybe they add a player or two during the offseason, maybe it’s a new coach, or maybe it’s just one of those weird cases of collective amnesia that fans sometimes get. Either way, everyone decides that the team is good now. Then the season starts, and it turns out they are not.
The outlook: These starts are never fun, and they can lead to the sort of overreactions that set a franchise back. But under the right circumstances, they can be a positive – the sort of wakeup call that a team might need, or at least a reminder of the work still left to do on the long road ahead.
Historical precedent: Coming off a lackluster 81-point season, the 2011-12 Blue Jackets loaded up for a quick turnaround. Rather than go full rebuild by trading Rick Nash, they swung a blockbuster trade to get him a top center in Jeff Carter. They also added James Wisniewski to shore up the blue line and welcomed rookie Ryan Johansen as a Calder contender. With a significantly increased payroll and plenty of pressure to make the playoffs, it felt like better times were ahead. Then they lost their first eight games and thirteen of their first fifteen on their way to finishing dead last. Oops.
Potential current example: The Devils. They had a great offseason, and that led to some justified optimism. But this was still a team coming off a 72-point season with an unproven coach and unsettled goaltending situation. Lining up for playoff tickets might have been premature.
The “Everybody Hurts” bad startWhat happens: On paper, the lineup should be decent. But we haven’t seen it yet, because several players are out with injury. We can’t say what the real lineup can do, because we haven’t had a chance to see it yet.
The outlook: It all depends on what sort of injuries we’re talking about. If the star goalie or leading scorer has a torn ACL, well, better luck next year. But if it’s just a case of a few key guys being banged up, there’s at least some room for optimism once everyone is healthy – as long as you haven’t already fallen out of the race by then.
Historical precedent: After years of rebuilding, the 2016-17 Sabres went into the season hoping to contend for a playoff spot. But Jack Eichel suffered a high-ankle sprain the day before the season and Evander Kane went down with a rib injury in the opener. With Kyle Okposo missing time with a knee injury and Ryan O’Reilly playing through back spasms, the Sabres limped out of the gate with one win in their first six games and were dead last in the Atlantic by the time Eichel returned in late November.
Potential current example: The Stars. While their very best players have been healthy, they’ve been missing at least a few guys just about every night. They lost three players in the season opener, including Roman Polak being stretchered off, and are still waiting on Corey Perry to make his debut. And while it’s not an injury, Julius Honka isn’t there either. Those absences haven’t been the team’s only problem – that list is a long one – but they sure haven’t helped.
The “Critical flaw exposed” bad startWhat happens: A team heads into the season feeling pretty good about themselves, aside from one nagging doubt. It could be weak goaltending, or a lack of a game-breaker up front, or a blue line that keeps springing a leak at the worst possible time. You’re left to wonder whether that one flaw is going to spell doom yet again. Soon the hockey gods answer: Yep, it sure is, and you were right to worry.
The outlook: A lot of this depends on just how big of a flaw we’re talking about, and how easy it is to fix. If goaltending is the issue, is there a prospect ready to come up and save the day? If the offense is missing a piece, can it be added through a trade? If there’s an answer out there, and the GM is willing to be aggressive in finding it, there may be hope.
Historical precedent: We could use last year’s Blues for a bunch of these, but they fit especially well here. Heading into the season, everyone figured they were at least borderline contenders. But all of that optimism came with a caveat: They needed a solid year from Jake Allen. Not necessarily a great one. Just decent. They didn’t get it, to the tune of a 3.99 GAA in October. Everything fell apart, people lost their jobs, and the next thing you know they had a former ECHL guy in net. I can’t remember what happened next, it probably wasn’t important.
Potential current example: Their start hasn’t been as bad as some of the other teams we’ll get to, but the Maple Leafs’ shaky play in their own zone keeps popping up at the worst possible times. If Mike Babcock hasn’t been able to fix it by now, you wonder if he ever will.
The “All part of the plan” bad startWhat happens: A bad team loses a lot of games, and everybody pretends to be upset because Gary Bettman has assured us that tanking isn’t real.
The outlook: Short term, it’s pretty awful – if you think your team fits into this category, then you’re pretty much writing off the entire season. But the short term isn’t the point, because this sort of start is all about the draft pick at the end of the rainbow. So settle in, ignore the losses, bookmark this page and try really hard to forget that the draft lottery rules mean this probably won’t work in the end.
Historical precedent: Many teams, but the 2014-15 Sabres (three wins in their first 18) and 2015-16 Maple Leafs (two wins in their first 14) are the Gretzky and Lemieux of this category.
Potential current example: Nobody really jumps out as an obvious tank this year, at least from Day 1. But the Senators are firmly in rebuild mode, and realistically had to know that another rough season was coming. So far, it’s definitely headed that way.
The “Nerd’s Mirage” bad startWhat happens: The team is losing games. But the smart people don’t seem all that concerned, because their numbers are strong. You’ll hear a lot about PDO (it’s low), possession numbers (they’re high) and the fundamental randomness of the modern NHL, and how regression to the mean will come along and make everything OK.
The outlook: A lot better than you think, the smart people assure you. The team is doing fine. They might even secretly be good. There are no guarantees, and sometimes random chance works against you for an entire season, but that’s rare. Don’t worry, they tell you. You should feel confident.
(You do not feel confident.)
Historical precedent: Take your choice of most Carolina Hurricanes seasons of the last decade. The longtime analytics favorites are finally good now, but for years they’d always seem to underperform what the smart people said they should be doing. In 2017-18 they lost eight of their first twelve and were essentially done by December, even as they were leading the league the league in 5-on-5 possession and expected goals percentage. The nerds were eventually proven right, although it took another year to happen.
Potential current example: Believe it or not, some of the underlying numbers suggest that the Wild are in better shape than you’d think. That might feel like news to the many Minnesota fans who already seem eager to blow it all up and start over, but the stats make the Wild look more like an average team suffering through a slump by a normally reliable goaltender than the fatally flawed mess that their record suggests.
The “Abandon all hope” bad startWhat happens: This is the more extreme cousin of the “Should have seen it coming” start. A team that’s historically been an afterthought, or worse, has one of those offseasons where they push all their chips into the middle of the table. The message is clear: We’re back. Then they face-plant right out of the gate.
The outlook: From a fan’s perspective, this might be the worst start of all. It’s one thing to feel disappointed, or discouraged, or even miserable. But the worst feeling you can have as a fan is that sense of foolishness that you ever believed in the first place. Why would this year have been different? With this team, it’s never different.
Historical precedent: Strictly in terms of wins and losses, the 2009-10 Maple Leafs didn’t have the worst start in NHL history, although it was close. They opened the year with eight straight losses, finally got a win, and then lost four more. It was the sort of start that causes fans to give up and start looking ahead to who the team will draft in the first round. Except that Leafs team didn’t have a first-round pick, because Brian Burke had traded it for Phil Kessel in an effort to win now. Ah well. The Leafs were so bad they’d probably get a high pick in 2011 too. Wait, they didn’t have that one either.
Potential current example: Boy, the Panthers needed that comeback win over the Devils yesterday, didn’t they? When you go out and spend tens of millions on a new goalie and a new coach, you’d like to bank a few wins early on. The schedule was tough – they opened with the Lightning twice and then the Hurricanes – but one win in six games was shaping up as a disaster. Two wins in six isn’t much better, but they’ll take it.
The “Hi, we’re the Arizona Coyotes” bad startWhat happens: The Coyotes head into the season with some pieces in place and a core that’s young enough that they should be better than last year. They look like a wildcard team, and maybe even a little more if everything can click. Then they can’t score, they get off to a slow start and they’re all but out of the playoff race by November.
The outlook: Maybe next year will be different! (It will not.)
Historical precedent: Every Coyotes season ever.
OK, that’s a little harsh. The Coyotes haven’t been terrible to start every season; a few times, they were mediocre instead. But over the last decade, their record over the first five games of a season is a combined 16 wins and 33 losses (with one more game to come tonight). Their very best start over that stretch was probably 2013-14, when they won six of their first ten. That’s it. That’s the best start they’ve had in a decade. Their worst start was literally the worst that the modern NHL had ever seen, when they lost eleven straight in 2017-18 to tie the mark set by the 1943-44 Rangers, a team that had lost all of its good players to World War II.
Potential current example: The Chicago Blackhawks.
No, just kidding, it’s the Coyotes. Seriously, can we get these guys a calendar or something? The season starts in October, boys.
(Although come to think of it, given how much trading they’ve done over the years, maybe it’s also the Blackhawks. Oh no, Coyote starts are becoming contagious!)
The “Why aren’t you undefeated?” bad startWhat happens: A team that everybody has penciled in as a Cup favorite starts the season by actually looking somewhat mortal. They even lose a few games. Soon, we start hearing forced narratives about how they just don’t know how to win.
The outlook: This one typically goes in one of two directions. Usually, the team stays the course, they run off a win streak or two and everybody forgets all about the slow start. The alternative is that the front office overreacts and makes a bunch of panic moves, at which point all bets are off.
Historical precedent: For the stay-the-course option, the gold standard is the 1995-96 Red Wings squad that was coming off a Cup final appearance, started the season 5-5-2 and then was basically unbeatable the rest of the way. For the panic move side of the coin, we can point to the 2010-11 Capitals. And their start wasn’t even that bad.
Potential current example: The Lightning, obviously. They’ll be fine, as long as they can tune out the nonsense about how they “have to change” from every random hot-take artist. (Checks notes.) Huh. I’m being told that’s their captain. That may be a bad sign.
The “Coach killer” bad startWhat happens: You never want to place the blame for a bad start on one person. But sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do, so: It’s that guy’s fault. Pack up your office, boss.
The outlook: Nobody enjoys seeing someone lose their job, and a bad start is never solely the responsibility of the guy behind the bench. But sometimes a team just needs a change, and as the old cliché goes, it’s easier to fire the coach than trade the whole team.
And often, at least in the short term, it works, as teams get a boost from a new voice and claw their way back into contention. That’s not always the case, of course – sometimes the new guy can’t do any better, and he may even be worse. But when things are going downhill and there doesn’t seem to be any other options, we know which card most GMs will consider playing.
Historical precedent: At least a few teams almost every year, including last year’s champs. The 2008-09 Hawks fired Denis Savard after just four games and that worked out pretty well. The Flyers moved even quicker in 2013-14, firing Peter Laviolette after just three games. Some guys only get 16 games into their first year. And of course, there’s always the risk that the guy you send packing turns out not to have been the problem after all.
Potential current example: To be determined, but we’re already getting that vibe out of places like Minnesota, Dallas and (especially) New Jersey.
The “Goaltending is 75 percent of your hockey team unless you don’t have it, then it’s 100 percent” bad startWhat happens: Hockey is a complicated game and you never want to oversimplify. But, uh, maybe we’d be in better shape if our starting goaltender wasn’t a slice of swiss cheese somebody hung from the crossbar with duct tape.
The outlook: The good news is that if your main problem is goaltending, you’re just one player away from fixing the issue. In that sense, it’s a better problem to have than “can’t score” or “don’t have any prospects.” And decent goaltenders are relatively easy to acquire since there are more NHL-caliber goalies out there than there are NHL jobs. But the bad news is that goaltending tends to be an offseason fix. Once you make it into the season, you’re kind of locked into your guys; midseason goalie trades are rare and the big ones often don’t work out.
Historical precedent: We could point to any number of bad starts by the Philadelphia Flyers – no really, look at all these beauties – but last year will do. The pre-Carter Hart era cost a GM his job, as the Flyers struggled in front of Brian Elliot, Calvin Pickard and pretty much everyone else who owned their own pads. Pro tip: When you lose your home opener 8-2, that’s a bad omen.
Potential current example: (Everyone stares daggers at Martin Jones and Aaron Dell.)
(All those daggers immediately trickle through their five holes.)