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Regular Season Prediction - The Bottom Third

Now comes the moment of truth. Should we expect the Oilers to finish somewhere other than 30th? Well, of course we should! After all, no team is likely to finish in last place. That standing is reserved for a team that has a bunch of things go wrong, a team that has injuries to key people early and often, that gets sub-par performance from players that should do well, and gets even worse performance from players that are in over their heads. But we never know which team that will be until the games are played, and it probably won't be the Oilers. But it's also not likely to be the Avalanche. Or the Wild. Or the Hurricanes, Panthers, Jets, Islanders, Stars, Coyotes or Leafs. But this exercise requires that I put someone in dead last. So, here we go.

#21 Carolina Hurricanes (3rd in the Southeast, 11th in the Eastern Conference) - The Carolina Hurricanes haven't bee a very good possession team for the last two seasons. In 2009-10, it showed up in their results: the Hurricanes had a -26 goal differential and missed the playoffs handily. In 2010-11, it didn't. Despite a worse showing in their underlying numbers, the Hurricanes were in the hunt for a playoff spot until close to the last week of the season, and their goal differential improved to -3. I think that we'll see the team's underlying numbers improve this year, but that the goal differential numbers will regress back to 2009-10 levels. Goal differential prediction: -20 (Change from 2010-11: -17)

#22 Dallas Stars (4th in the Pacific, 11th in the Western Conference) - A fall here is pretty easy to explain. First, they weren't that good last season. They got by almost entirely on percentages with one of the league's best shooting percentages five-on-five (9.1%), and two goaltenders who played well above their established level of ability. In Kari Lehtonen's case, his overperformance came in the health department. He really is a very good goaltender when healthy, it's just that he hasn't been healthy. Last season, he played in a career-high 69 games, only the second time in his career that he's manned the net more than 50 times. Should injury troubles return this year, the Stars are again relying on Andrew Raycroft. That gamble somehow paid off last season, mostly because he didn't play that much and lucked out on the PK in a very small sample. If he plays more often, his luck will run out. Add to that the loss of Brad Richards, and I think the Stars will struggle despite some smart depth additions over the summer. Goal differential prediction: -25 (Change from 2010-11: -19) 

#23 Toronto Maple Leafs (5th in the Northeast, 12th in the Eastern Conference) - I believed in this team last season. I thought that with better goaltending, they'd be contending for the playoffs. I was mostly wrong. The team did get much better goaltending, but their leap forward in terms of possession in 2009-10 turned out to be nothing but a mirage - in terms of Fenwick percentage with the score tied at even strength, the club went from 48.0% in 2008-09 to 52.7% in 2009-10 to a dismal 44.4% in 2010-11. I had expected some regression, but that is a crazy turnaround! The terrible special teams also stayed terrible, especially the power play. So what about this year? I think the team will make improvements in all of those areas, but that the goaltending will falter, and that the team will end up with a pretty similar finish to last season. Goal differential prediction: -30 (Change from 2010-11: +3)

#24 Colorado Avalanche (3rd in the Northwest, 12th in the Western Conference) - This team was devastated by injuries last season, and had one of the worst quarter-seasons in the history of the thirty-team NHL with a grand total of zero regulation wins in their last 22 games (their record in regulation was 0-17-5) and -36 goal differential during that stretch. This team was terrible in that stretch, and it makes last year's team look worse than it really was. They were actually pretty decent at the start of the year, and over the summer, they've strengthened the team considerably by adding Semyon Varlamov in goal, and Jan Hejda and Shane O`Brien on defense. Of course, they're still relying on a lot of youth up front, and they paid a heavy price for Varlamov (their first round pick). If he gets injured (as he's wont to do), the team will likely struggle. Overall, I expect a better and more consistent year than last season, but I don't think the quality is there for them to be consistently good. Goal differential prediction: -30 (Change from 2010-11: +31)  

#25 Florida Panthers (5th in the Southeast, 13th in the Eastern Conference) - The Panthers were decent at even strength last season, but were awful on special teams, and it isn't just the percentages that got them down (on the PK, that's what was propping them up): their shooting rate five-on-four was the worst in the league. Maybe the acquisitions of Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski will help there. The additions up front should also help the team to maintain that relatively near-average showing at evens: Scottie Upshall, Marcel Goc, and Tomas Fleischmann are all pretty good players. But all of those gains are, to my mind, washed away by replacing Tomas Vokoun with Jose Theodore. Goaltending matters, and going from likely elite to likely below average is going to be a tough pill for this club to swallow. Goal differential prediction: -35 (Change from 2010-11: -1)

#26 Minnesota Wild (4th in the Northwest, 13th in the Western Conference) - I think that the Wild are rebuilding, and so this prediction partially reflects that. With the departure of Brent Burns, the team's defense has taken a big hit. Their possession numbers were already quite poor a year ago - their Fenwick percentage with the score tied was a terrible 43.7% - and they haven't been good for several years now. I think they'll be mostly out of the playoff hunt by the time the trade deadline arrives, and expect that they'll try to put Dany Heatley in ideal circumstances this year in an effort to flip him for a younger player who will be ready to help in the near future if not immediately. But if this all happens, the playoffs will be a distant bell, and the Wild will be on the outside looking in for the fourth year in a row. Goal differential prediction: -35 (Change from 2010-11: -8)

#27 Phoenix Coyotes (5th in the Pacific, 14th in the Western Conference) - This is the team that I see taking the biggest fall in the NHL's standings. The Coyotes were a pretty good team in 2009-10, and a decent team last year, but in both instances they were being propped up by some outstanding goaltending. With Mike Smith replacing Ilya Bryzgalov, that's not likely to be the case this year. This is especially true on the PK where the Coyotes have been one of the worst teams at shot prevention for several years, but have been buoyed by strong netminding. In addition, the Coyotes had one of the better on-ice shooting percentages during five-on-five play last season at 8.7%, which I expect to regress toward league average. With the percentages moving the wrong way on the Coyotes, they'll need to count on getting a greater share of the shots, and I don't think that's going to happen. was able to adequately replace most of their losses (Raffi Torres, Daymond Langkow, and Boyd Gordon in for Lee Stempniak, Vernon Fiddler, and Eric Belanger on their way out), but Ed Jovanovski is a big loss on defense. In the end, I think the percentages bite them pretty hard. Goal differential prediction: -40 (Change from 2010-11: -45)

#28 New York Islanders (5th in the Atlantic, 14th in the Eastern Conference) - You never can tell when one of these young rebuilding teams is going to suddenly announce that they've arrived, and there's a chance that it happens for the Islanders this year. But I wouldn't bet on it. The defense isn't particularly strong, and as much as I like Marty Reasoner and Jay Pandolfo, the club hasn't added much in the way of impact pieces up front either. Even some of the guys who are returning look poised for a fall. Michael Grabner, for example, had a very high shooting percentage relative to his career norms, and also had a very high individual point percentage, both warning signs that he might be set to regress. Al Montoya, meanwhile, played very well in a cameo, but has shown no signs of being an NHL caliber goaltender at lower levels. He's only the backup, which wouldn't be worth worrying about except that the starter is thirty-six years old and coming off a dreadful performance in Russia. All of that adds up to another year in the basement. Goal differential prediction: -45 (Change from 2010-11: -10)

#29 Winnipeg Jets (5th in the Southeast, 15th in the Eastern Conference) - The more things change, the more they stay the same. I'm looking forward to Winnipeg's home opener, and to the return of Teemu Selanne, and for their first game in Edmon... looks at schedule... derp. Anyway, the Jets are back, and they're back to being bottom-feeders. The Jets have a few nice pieces up front, but they don't have anyone that you can look to and reasonably assume a sixty-point season if he stays healthy. And despite a good defense corps, that lack of goal-scoring will really hurt because the goaltending isn't going to be good enough to carry them. Goal differential prediction: -45 (Change from 2010-11: +1)

#30 Edmonton Oilers (5th in the Northwest, 15th in the Western Conference) - I wish it were otherwise, I really do. I mean, I cheer for this team; I want to see them do well. But there's just too much. In terms of possession, they were one of the worst clubs in the league. On the penalty kill, they were one of the worst. Power play? Among the worst. Goaltending? Terrible. And things haven't really been addressed. The addition of Eric Belanger helps. The addition of Ryan Smyth helps too, but realistically, he's a step down from Dustin Penner, who was on the team at this time last year. I think Ben Eager probably adds some marginal value too, but I think that's about it for helpful additions. Andy Sutton and Kurtis Foster are about a wash except that Sutton is a lefty and the club needs righties; Cam Barker hasn't shown he's of much value, and may find it hard to match the contributions of Jim Vandermeer; Darcy Hordichuk is a better player than Steve MacIntyre, but the coach will probably play him more too, so that trade-off probably makes the team worse. But the biggest issue for this team was goaltending, and the management team did nothing to address it. As I said in the open, no team is actually likely to finish dead last, but it seems to me that the Oilers have as good a chance as anyone. Goal differential prediction: -65 (Change from 2010-11: +11)