(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)
There have been many overarching storylines in hockey this year, but the one that came up in many, many various forms over the course of 2015 is the twin concept of overperformance and underperformance.
For example, you have the Los Angeles Kings — easily the best team in the NHL over the last four years — having missed the playoffs last season despite having high-level possession numbers and now just absolutely demolishing almost everyone they play.
In the same division, you had the Calgary Flames getting every result to go their way for an entire season in which they were otherwise worthy of consideration for “worst team in the league.” This year, the same story is playing out in the Pacific between the Anaheim Ducks (good team that is losing inexplicably, though for less clear reasons than the Kings) while the Arizona Coyotes can't stop winning division games in particular.
Likewise, the Montreal Canadiens benefited heavily from what was probably one of the best goaltending seasons ever, in a campaign when they otherwise should have gotten pummeled most nights. So they change their approach and all of a sudden Carey Price can't stay healthy.
There are more ups (Devan Dubnyk's late-season run) and downs (the start to Columbus's 2015-16 season) like this around the league, but the one idea behind which this idea coalesced the most, in my opinion, comes in the form of intentionally underpeforming.
In no year in NHL history have we had so much chance to have a frank discussion about tanking. Why it's good for your franchise, why it's morally reprehensible, and what that ultimately gets you on both sides of the coin.
As far as any rational observer should be concerned, only one team actively tanked in the 2015, calendar year, and that is of course the Buffalo Sabres.
(You might want to argue in favor of the Oilers, but that would be giving the previous Edmonton front office the credit that they could actively do anything correctly, and that's a bridge too far to consider.)
Buffalo also tanked the year before, but there likely has never been a season in which the benefits of doing so were uniquely clear: Regardless of whether it won the draft lottery, the 30th-best team in the NHL in 2014-15 was going to get a generational talent. Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel was the guaranteed prize, and no one went for it with gusto like Tim Murray's team.
The idea of intentionally going through a lost season just to get a player like that may be odious to some, but the overwrought moral rectitude on display from a lot of corners over the course of the Sabres being pitiable last season was a bit much. The idea behind competitive professional sports is that you want to win as much as possible, but for teams like Buffalo where losing had become de rigueur regardless of effort level and where there wasn't a lot of homegrown hope coming down the pipeline, the idea of losing in spectacular fashion for one year was better than losing only a little more often than not for several, or more. Because at least the former tack gets you McDavid or Eichel.
Tim Murray is many things, but I think in the past year we've seen that “pragmatist” is probably pretty close to the top of the list. Fans don't show up when teams lose, whether they mean to lose or whether they do so because they are simply bad. But the obvious tank-job seen in 2014-15 created something of a weird negative-rooting interest. If you all but come out and tell fans, “Look, we're going to be unwatchable but it's for a good reason,” fans will kind of embrace the trainwreck of it all. At least, that was the case in Buffalo.
Again, you get into a weird moralistic territory when you actively want your favorite team to lose, but you have to ask whether fans want, say, three or four more seasons of being ninth-worst in the league and maybe hitting on a couple high-ish picks, or if you want to speed the process along and, at worst, just go get yourself a guy who is drawing favorable comparisons to Mark Messier.
Likewise, once Edmonton actually won the draft lottery, people were furious that they were being rewarded for failure, as though this is somehow not the way in which the entire concept of a reverse-finish draft like that employed by every major North American pro sports league is supposed to work. Edmonton only had an 11.5 percent chance to win the lottery and won it anyway. They got Connor McDavid and even before he broke his clavicle, you could see what he brought to the table pretty early in his career. And you can therefore also see why tanking works and is rational and carries with it no moral failing.
It's because when you get a player like McDavid or Eichel, a rock upon which you can potentially build a dynasty, your organizational thinking changes pretty much immediately. Edmonton, in the first second or two after the golden envelope opened, basically said “We have McDavid now? Better start acting like a responsible franchise.”
Out went basically everyone responsible for the rudderless disaster of the last decade, and in came smart hockey people capable of making a wealth of smart hockey decisions. The team hasn't been very good again this year, but you at least see the direction in which things are moving at long last. And it's the right one.
Likewise, Buffalo got Eichel and was already softening the beaches for more overt team success with some laying-the-groundwork transactions from Murray, like trading for Evander Kane. At the draft, they also traded for Ryan O'Reilly (who has been a revelation in the team's No. 1 center slot this season) and Robin Lehner (nobody's perfect). A less-discussed benefit of tanking also gives you the ability to trade from a deeper pool of prospects to acquire legitimate NHL players, and also sign them to rich contracts as free agents because tanking teams are largely unencumbered by long-term commitments at big dollar values.
Another benefit: Both the Sabres and Oilers also went out and got coaches with significant NHL success in their past. Do they attract coaches on the level of Dan Bylsma and Todd McLellan without the promise provided by generational talents? It's tough to say for sure, but you probably have to make up the difference with a contract rivaling the one Mike Babcock got from Toronto.
Neither team is good this season either, of course. As of this writing, Buffalo is tied for 23rd in the league and Edmonton is tied for 25th (but they are hilariously only three points out of a playoff spot). But at least you can see the wheels in motion. They're no longer spinning. They're rumbling, slowly but surely, toward reasonable long-term success. And if you can get another top-five pick out of the deal before you get there, well that's alright too.
Because at least you're trying, right?
What We Learned Year In Review
Anaheim Ducks: Well, 2015 started with a lot of promise for this club, because of that whole, “Playing like the best team in the league” thing. Not so much now, but you might just see reason for them to hulk out in the second half and start crushing their pathetic division. You don't go from arguably the best team in the league to one of the worst overnight.
Arizona Coyotes: The reason Arizona is overperforming this year? As alluded to above, they've 7-1-1 in games against Pacific division teams. Their only regulation loss was to... Vancouver? That can't be right.
Boston Bruins: Talk about big overhauls in 2015, this team got one. Whether it's for the best long-term remains to be seen, but as long as they have Tuukka Rask between the pipes and Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand up front, they ought to have enough success to make the playoffs and scare the hell out of anyone they play.
Buffalo Sabres: Eichel may not have gotten off to a Malkin-like start with the Sabres, but he's getting a lot better as the season goes along. And right now, you're looking at a points-per-game number in the same neighborhood at Steven Stamkos.
Calgary Flames: It's still really difficult to tell, isn't it, whether everyone acknowledges that the success of 2014-15 was a fluke. Were it not for Johnny Gaudreau, who is probably the most fun player in the league, this team would be the worst in the league right now. But he has 3-4-7 in overtime alone, largely because it's a game state uniquely suited to his talents.
Carolina Hurricanes: This is clearly a team in need of greater and clearer direction post-2015. It's all well and good to want to hold on to some of the longest-tenured players in franchise history, but there's no reason to be giving Cam Ward or obviously-lost-a-step Eric Staal the kind of time, attention, and long-term consideration this franchise has afforded them.
Colorado Avalanche: I think 2015 was the year everyone except those in the greater Denver area figured out that Patrick Roy is woefully unprepared to coach at this level. Last night's game featured John Mitchell between Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog. Hopefully 2016 is the year the Avs figure out they need a real coach.
Columbus Blue Jackets: I can't imagine how difficult it was to be a fan of this team in 2015. You're being sold hope at the end of a lost season and then less than a month into the new one they hire John Tortorella? Yeesh.
Dallas Stars: Name a team in the NHL that's more fun to watch. And as a bonus, they're actually good this season.
Detroit Red Wings: This team leads the division (with games in hand, mind you) on Dec. 27 despite loss of Mike Babcock to a division rival. Fair to say not many saw that coming, but if the start of 2015 was a preview of post-Datsyuk life, Wings fans ought to be looking for ways to start transfusions with Nicklas Lidstrom's blood immediately.
Edmonton Oilers: Pretty crazy to think that this team is not out of the playoff hunt despite losing Connor McDavid for as much as two months. The Pacific sure is interesting, for all the wrong reasons.
Florida Panthers: There are lots of reasons to be skeptical about this team's chances for success, but the fact that they're going to go at least a 41-33-10 is probably more than you would have expected. It's also only a pace for about 90 points, but y'know, win some, lose some.
Los Angeles Kings: Is there seriously anyone surprised that the Kings are good this year after missing the 2015 postseason? One person? Of course not.
Minnesota Wild: Look at that, Devan Dubnyk isn't a .930-something goalie. But he's still above-average, and that's basically all you can ask for in this league. As long as your goalie isn't costing you anything on a nightly basis, you're going to be in decent shape, which is exactly what the Wild are in a very difficult division.
Montreal Canadiens: In a lot of ways, 2015 was the Year of Carey Price, both because of how many games he flat-out stole for a not-great team last year, and what his absence has done to his club (though that's obviously not his fault). When you have elite goaltending, many things become possible which otherwise would not be so.
Nashville Predators: Imagine being a team as good as the Predators and being fifth in your division, but also five points clear of the ninth-place team in your conference? What a time to be alive. They'll trade for that elite forward any day now, I'm sure.
New Jersey Devils: No team was shaken to its fundamental core this year more so than New Jersey. The Devils without Lou Lamoriello is like Christmas without presents, but like somehow having a Christmas without presents makes you smarter? Maybe it's an allegory for capitalism and the commercialization of religious holidays. I don't know.
New York Islanders: Tough to tell what to make of this team. Like, they are clearly good, but how good are they? Does it matter in a division with teams as dominant as the Rangers (last season) and Capitals (now)? Probably not. But John Tavares has 111 points between last season and this one, tied with Alex Ovechkin for sixth in the league. We probably ought to talk more about how good he is.
New York Rangers: Turns out that relying on elite goaltending forever isn't a good idea for a club as fundamentally poorly built as the Rangers. These recent struggles were a long time coming.
Ottawa Senators: You watch the Senators and you have to just get depressed. They're fine, I guess, but Erik Karlsson deserves better than this. Much, much better. Hopefully 2016 is the year they start building something around him before he ages out of whatever miraculous video-game-level play he's pulling off. Not counting whatever he did against Boston yesterday, he has 25-58-83 in 81 games in 2015 and a few games to go. What a blessing to watch him every night.
Philadelphia Flyers: The less said about this team's 2015 the better. It's hard to name a single positive.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Well this is a team at a crossroads, isn't it? Not great and not likely to get better any time soon either. All the problems that led to Ray Shero being shown the door are cropping up once again, and Jim Rutherford is the guy you have at the wheel? Hoo boy, 2016 ain't shaping up so hot.
San Jose Sharks: Well we'll always have Joe Thornton and what a nice boy he is. Might not have much else, but that's plenty.
St. Louis Blues: This was the year Vladimir Tarasenko really planted his flag as a next-level talent. His 37 goals so far in the calendar year rank behind only Ovechkin (53; ridiculous), Benn (46), and Stamkos (39). Though hey, maybe we don't give Max Pacioretty enough credit, because he also has 37 and no one says a word about that. Maybe he needs to deke through four guys at top speed more often.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Well, 2015 might not have been the year they lost Steven Stamkos to another team. But it might be the year they started losing him. Maybe the Triplets make you feel better about that. But man, it's tough to wrap your head around.
Toronto Maple Leafs: The immediate change in quality this team has seen as a direct result of hiring Mike Babcock is incredible, and shrouded entirely by the fact that Jonathan Bernier can't make a stop and James Reimer can't stay healthy. If this team had decent goaltending all year, instead of :elite” some nights and “tire-fire” on others, it would be competing for a playoff spot.
Vancouver Canucks: Well Canucks fans would probably like to see 2015 get in the rearview sooner than later. But 2016 will almost certainly be worse.
Washington Capitals: Isn't it nice to have a team universally acknowledged to be high-level in every facet of the game. Strong D corps, borderline-elite goaltending, and that forward group might be the best in the league. Hope Ovechkin wins a Cup this year. It would be wonderful.
Winnipeg Jets: They made the playoffs in 2015 and that isn't nothing. But they close the calendar year with more questions than answers about their prospects for making a return in the next few seasons.
Play of the Year
Like I wasn't going to pick a college hockey play. Thank you, Kasimir Kaskisuo. I would say this is luck and not a thing he totally meant to do, but him lifting the glove at the last second makes me believe he meant to do that.
Gold Star Award
Best player of 2015 is clearly Carey Price. I can't even think of a decent No. 2. Tyler Seguin? Alex Ovechkin?
Minus of 2015
The less said about everything that happened in hockey this summer, the better off we're all going to be.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year
User “Tbj4life” gets to the heart of what makes HFBoards trade proposals so good in the first place: A trade involving two superstars that doesn't begin to make sense for either party. The ideal trade proposal also mixes in conditional picks but what can I say?
You want me to spend more time with Dad? What about my New Year's resolution?
(All stats via War On Ice unless otherwise noted.)
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