The playoffs are in full swing, but as part of my series of posts on the NHL teams no longer playing, I’m taking a small step back to look at the final three non-playoff teams: Carolina, Nashville and Phoenix.
Carolina: 2013-14 was another lost season for a Hurricanes club that hasn’t seen the playoffs since 2009. Much like Washington, realignment hurt the Canes, who moved from the plush confines of the Southeast Division into the tougher Metropolitan this year. Explaining the lost season is fairly simple. Gifted puck-moving defenseman Joni Pitkanen was lost for the season to injury, and the Hurricanes’ offensive game suffered. In the shortened 2012-13 season, Carolina was a 51.3% Fenwick Close team playing very high-event hockey; with diminishing attacking production, they slipped to 48.2%. At even strength, only six teams allowed Corsi attempts against at a higher rate; only seven teams allowed more shots against at 5-on-5. Had they maintained a decent shooting percentage, of course, this may not have mattered. Carolina had the 11th-best even-strength goaltending in the league (0.926), with a particularly strong season from Anton Khudobin (0.936), and even without Pitkanen, they were still a top-10 team in shots on goal. Unfortunately, they shot a frosty 6.8% as a team at 5-on-5, one of the worst marks in the league. The end result: the Hurricanes were in the bottom half of the league in both goals scored and goals allowed.
The frustrating thing about this team is that most other squads in the NHL would love to have their key players: Carolina is not a team devoid of talent. Eric Staal had a down year with just 61 points, but 33 goals from Jeff Skinner more than made up for it. Alex Semin is still a valuable offensive talent, and Jordan Staal is one of the game’s best two-way centers. On the blueline, Andrej Sekera, Justin Faulk, and the vastly underrated Ron Hainsey all had excellent seasons. The problem, as you might have guessed, is one of depth. Apart from Faulk and players taken high in the first round, Carolina has struggled for years to turn draft picks into effective NHL players, and much of their core talent (e.g., Jordan Staal, Semin, Sekera) has arrived via trade or free agency. Over 82 games, the quality of their top players wasn’t able to obscure the struggles of the depth guys: Mike Komisarek and Jay Harrison struggled badly in sheltered roles, and players like Brett Bellemore, Manny Malhotra, Patrick Dwyer, and Drayson Bowman got hammered in more defensive deployment. Carolina’s cap picture isn’t great, and they have a new GM with a lot of holes to fill in the offseason. The Staals, Semin, Faulk and Skinner are under contract long-term, and will make almost $32M between them. On the blueline, the Hurricanes’ next highest-paid defenseman is John-Michael Liles, acquired in a swap of bad contracts with Toronto: Liles will make nearly $4M next season despite being a third-pairing player. Sekera is entering a contract year, and will almost certainly get a substantial raise . It’s not clear what Carolina will do about Pitkanen; he’s a UFA, and at just 30 years old it seems unlikely that he’ll retire. The team is most likely stuck with the remaining two years of Cam Ward’s awful contract, unless they look at a buyout. Otherwise, the Canes have a UFA in Hainsey that should get a raise, and a number of RFAs (e.g., Nathan Gerbe, Jiri Tlusty) that they’ll likely try to keep. But it’s not clear that they’ll be much better this season than they were this year.
Nashville: Don’t look now, but change is finally coming in Nashville: after a dismal 2013-14 and missing a second straight postseason, the Preds have fired their first and only head coach, Barry Trotz. While this is a pretty significant shakeup, it’s a little difficult to look at the Predators’ season and lay much of the blame at Trotz’s feet. Over the past decade, the Preds have made the playoffs more times than not, but their success has often been attributable to a handful of particularly brilliant players. In the first two seasons after the 2005 lockout, the Predators cracked the 100-point mark despite abysmal puck possession, largely because of the brilliance of Tomas Vokoun and catching the productive tail end of Paul Kariya’s career. After a couple of down seasons, the emergence of Ryan Suter and Shea Weber as elite defensemen, and of Pekka Rinne in goal, brought them back to the playoffs for three seasons between 2009-10 and 2011-12. Over that period, the Preds’ possession game declined badly and they became increasingly reliant on brilliant play from Rinne, but point totals of 100, 99, and 104 didn’t suggest much of a problem. Then came last season: with Suter gone, Nashville’s possession game deteriorated to an ugly 45.9% Fenwick Close, and no team scored fewer goals or took fewer shots. Thus, despite a 0.928 season from Rinne, the Preds were one of the worst teams in the NHL. This season, to Trotz’s credit, the Predators stabilized their possession numbers, playing a much tighter low-event game. With little scoring punch at the forward spots, Nashville struggled to score goals this season, but with a strong season from Rinne, they likely would’ve been in the playoff hunt. Unfortunately, the Preds goaltender had some terrible luck this season. In October, he began experiencing infection symptoms in his hip, arising from complications of an offseason surgery, and he underwent a second surgery; Rinne would not return to game action until early March. Nashville’s lack of a true backup goalie was exposed as Carter Hutton and Marek Mazanec gave the team 0.915 play at even strength. For a team that couldn’t score, this wasn’t nearly good enough.
The economics of running an NHL team in a non-traditional market like Nashville are complicated, and though the Preds have decent payroll flexibility, it’s never clear how willing this team is to spend above the cap floor. Weber and Roman Josi performed well in a ton of tough minutes this season, and both are under contract long-term. Rinne is still owed $35M over five more seasons, so the Preds will pray for a strong bounceback from him next year. Patric Hornqvist led Nashville forwards in scoring and had an excellent two-way season, but Eric Nystrom and Viktor Stalberg made $5.5M this season while producing just 40 total points. Still, if key prospects Filip Forsberg and Seth Jones continue to develop at the NHL level, the team may be on its way to addressing its lack of depth from within. Of course, if Trotz’s job wasn’t safe, GM David Poile’s days may be numbered also; it says something about Poile’s job performance that he’s failed to build a deep team in over a decade in Nashville’s front office. If he’s let go, the Predators organization will truly head into uncharted territory.
Phoenix: A late losing streak cost the Coyotes a chance at the final Western Conference playoff spot, though they were the final team to be eliminated from playoff contention. After an unlikely run to the conference finals in 2012, this is the second straight season in which Phoenix has missed the postseason by a slim margin. In reality, however, this team was fortunate to stay in the race as long as they did. In March, they went on a tear of nine wins in 13 games, largely owing to spectacular play from goaltender Mike Smith, who had a strong 0.927 Sv% this season. At that point, however, Smith went down to injury, and the Coyotes didn’t win again until the last night of the season, after their fate had been sealed. Looking at the overall picture, making the playoffs while playing a divisional schedule against teams like Anaheim, San Jose, Los Angeles and Vancouver was never going to be easy, and as a 50% Fenwick Close team playing a high-event game, and shooting a mediocre 7.2% at 5-on-5, Phoenix wasn’t quite good enough to keep pace in their division.
The off-ice future of the Coyotes might always feel a little precarious: after bankruptcy and near-relocation, the ‘Yotes have an uneasy relationship with the city of Glendale, and will hope that the new TV money coming to the NHL helps with their long-term viability. On the ice, though, the past few seasons have given us a pretty clear idea of what to expect from this team under Dave Tippett. Since the 2010-11 season, Phoenix has been a high-event team with very average possession numbers. When they’ve had an 82-game PDO in excess of 1012 (meaning, in practice, 0.930 goaltending at even strength), they make the playoffs; without spectacular goaltending, and contrary to Tippett’s reputation as a defensive coach, they tend to miss out. The lack of forward depth on the roster is a serious concern. The Coyotes were led in scoring this season by a defenseman, Keith Yandle; winger Radim Vrbata was the highest-scoring forward with 51 points, and a strong power play masked the fact that this team struggled to score at even strength. Free-agent center Mike Ribiero scored just 30 even-strength points despite pillow-soft minutes and a $5.5M cap hit. On the blueline, the Coyotes are fairly well set up; Yandle, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and Zbynek Michalek had strong seasons, and will be back next year. Apart from Ribiero’s deal, the team has few bad contracts on the books and a decent amount of cap flexibility. But it isn’t clear that this organization knows how to take the next step in putting together a team that can contend in the Pacific.
Previous Teams Fall Apart posts: Buffalo, Florida and Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and the NY Islanders, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New Jersey, and Washington.