Joe Pavelski (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Before each season, there are players and teams from which fans and pundits predict great things. Whether it’s injury, situation or otherwise, however, sometimes these squads or stars fall flat. These are the 10 most surprising struggles of this season.
As much as a story like the resurgent New York Islanders or the Andrew Hammond-led Ottawa Senators pleases us, there will always be teams or players that fail to meet expectations.
Be it simply a down year or a minor – or major, when it comes to a team – injury, no NHL season goes by without teams and players facing their fair share of difficulties. If they respond positively, they’re heralded for their efforts. But, if things go sideways in a hurry, we’re left wondering how exactly our predictions could have been so wrong.
And these are the predictions that were the farthest off -- the teams and players still making us wonder how prognostications could have been so misguided. These are the 10 most surprising struggles of 2014-15:
10. Big off-season goes bust for Stars
No team made the off-season splash the Stars did. On the first day of free agency, Dallas GM Jim Nill landed Jason Spezza from the Ottawa Senators in a trade and proceeded to add Ales Hemsky, Spezza’s wingman post-trade deadline the year prior. Putting those two offensive stars with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn looked like a surefire way to put the Stars into contention in the Western Conference. After all, who could keep up with a four-star offense like that?
Right out of the gates, however, the Stars stumbled. By the time the holiday break came around, the Stars were 14-14-5 and sat behind the Avalanche, Wild and Flames in the wild-card race. With the odds for non-playoff teams at that point to make it to the dance, things looked extremely bleak for Dallas.
They’ve made a late push, but it’s unlikely they squeak in. After such hype coming into the campaign, the Stars season has fallen well flat of where the team hoped to be.
9. Vincent Lecavalier’s forgettable year
After being bought out by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the offseason prior to the 2013-14 season, Lecavalier landed a deal with the Philadelphia Flyers in an attempt to get his career back on track. To say things haven’t worked out for Lecavalier would be an understatement.
The 34-year-old, 15-year veteran hasn’t been able to rediscover his game with the Flyers and he’s been a healthy scratch more than a dozen times. Averaging less than 13 minutes per game, Lecavalier has just seven goals and 18 points in 51 outings.
He’s in the second year of a five-year deal with the Flyers, but it’s unlikely he lasts much longer if he’s only skating fourth-line minutes in between stints watching from the sideline.
8. Sharks hits the skids after turbulent summer
San Jose’s off-season was one of the most highly criticized in the league. Joe Thornton was stripped of the captaincy and the team doled out four alternate captaincies in its place. While Thornton did keep a letter – he wears an ‘A’ for the Sharks – the move was met with scrutiny.
Things haven’t gotten much better for the Sharks, either. Still considered one of the better rosters in the Pacific Division, San Jose’s playoff window is closing rapidly and this could be the first season in more than a decade the Sharks miss the post-season.
No one expected the blow up between Thornton and GM Doug Wilson earlier this month, either, but that issue was smoothed over in a matter of days. Any push the Sharks make now will be too little, too late.
7. Kuemper, Backstrom can’t get the job done for Minnesota
Analytically speaking, the Minnesota Wild were one of the most brilliant teams early in the season. However, as of Jan. 14, the Wild had dropped four in a row, were eight points out of a playoff spot and looked as though their season might be lost due to shoddy goaltending.
Together, Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom formed one of the most giving goaltending duos in the entire league. At times, it looked like no matter what the Wild did they would be thwarted by their problems in goal. Things turned around once Devan Dubnyk was acquired from the Arizona Coyotes, but the entire situation could have been avoided if either goaltender in Minnesota’s stable to start the year would have posted league average numbers.
6. Alexander Semin’s incredible scoring woes
In Semin’s first year of a five-year, $35 million extension, he started slow but finished with 22 goals and 42 points in 65 games. While respectable totals, they're not the number the Hurricanes were expecting, especially from a one-time 40-goal scorer.
Semin has all the attributes that can make him an incredible offensive talent, but he’s struggled mightily this season in Carolina. Through 47 games, he has only four goals, by far the worst total of his career. More shocking is that two of his four tallies have actually come in the past three weeks. He’s been scratched for 10 games, has missed eight games to injury and looks like a shell of his former self.
There were rumblings near the trade deadline that the Hurricanes could look into moving Semin and taking back some of his contract. If Carolina can’t find a taker, they may even be forced to buyout Semin.
5. Sophomore slump haunts Nathan MacKinnon
MacKinnon’s 24-goal, 63-point rookie campaign was good enough for the Avalanche young gun to take home the Calder Trophy, and many thought it was a sign of things to come. Sadly, the dreaded sophomore slump struck MacKinnon and has left him well under the 20-goal mark this season.
Not only did MacKinnon struggle, but so did Colorado. The slide in the standings for the Avalanche was predicted, but it would have been hard to imagine them missing the playoffs entirely, as it appears they will.
Sidelined now with a foot fracture that is supposed to keep him on the shelf until the end of the season, MacKinnon will finish the season with 14 goals and 38 points in 64 games.
4. Bruins left fighting for their lives in Eastern Conference
In just three short years since their Stanley Cup championship victory, the Boston Bruins are in a fight for the second and final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. With the Ottawa Senators only one point back of the Bruins with two games in hand and the Florida Panthers still fighting towards their own berth, the Bruins’ situation is dire.
After Boston lost Zdeno Chara earlier in the season, Dougie Hamilton stepped up to make a big difference for the Bruins, but his recent injury will make Boston’s chances of hanging onto the final spot in the Eastern Conference that much more difficult. David Krejci has also missed the last month with a knee injury, leaving an already offensively barren Bruins team without one of their go-to scorers.
3. Upstart Islanders have most trouble in goal
Who would have thought that of all things to hold the Islanders back this season, it would be their goaltending? Jaroslav Halak was great early in the year, but has steadily slid back to the pack and has fallen well below average in goals-against average and save percentage.
In 51 games this season, Halak has posted a 35-15-1 record, six shutouts, a 2.41 GAA and .913 SP. At the trade deadline, GM Garth Snow dealt for Buffalo Sabres netminder Michal Neuvirth, which is a contingency plan should Halak not find his game in time for the playoffs.
For a long while the Islanders were competing for top spot in the Metropolitan Division, and they could still get back in the race if the Rangers go on a losing streak and the Isles can piece together a few wins in a row, but Halak's goaltending has hurt their chances at the top seed in the division.
2. League leaders post average point totals
This isn’t so much on one player as it is the league as a whole. It seems like a near certainty this will be the lowest scoring season by an Art Ross Trophy winner since the league expanded in 1967-68. That season, Chicago's Stan Mikita scored 87 points to capture the league scoring title.
Sidney Crosby, who currently leads the league, has 74 points with only 10 games left in his season. His 85-point pace is outstanding considering he won’t have played a full season, but it’s far from the gaudy 120 points he registered in 2006-07 to win the Art Ross.
Leaguewide, goaltenders have been having some of the best seasons of their careers, led by Montreal’s Carey Price who tops all four major goaltending categories. If things keep going this way, we may look back at 2014-15 as the dawning of a new dead puck era.
1. Cup champion Kings on the ropes in home stretch
Not since 2006-07, when the Carolina Hurricanes finished four points out of a playoff spot, has a Stanley Cup champion failed to make the post-season the following year. If the Los Angeles Kings can’t turn things around in a hurry, they might be the latest occurrence.
As of Sunday, the Kings are four points back of the Winnipeg Jets for the second and final wild-card spot in the Western Conference with a game in hand. More importantly, however, the Kings are only two points back of the Calgary Flames, also with a game in hand. The Kings are about to embark on a five game road trip and have an April 9 meeting with the Flames which stands to be the biggest game of their year.
When it comes to advanced statistics, the Kings have consistently been one of the best teams, but a lack of steady scoring and shaky goaltending has hindered Los Angeles ability to put together a solid regular season. The Kings are used to turning it on come playoff time, but they might not even get the chance this season if they don’t sneak in.