With just days left in the regular season and the playoff races basically locked up, many of the fan bases in the league aren’t very happy right now. There’s about to be a two-month party with a big shiny trophy at the end of it, and half of you aren’t invited.
It’s a tough time of year, and I want to help. So today, we’re going to break out an annual tradition around these parts and look for three positive thoughts for each of the non-playoff teams.
That’s it. Just three shots of optimism, aimed at those that need it most. If you prefer negativity, you can read, well, just about everything else being written about these teams. But not here, at least not today. It’s all good. The glass isn’t just half-full, it’s half-full of unicorn tears. But like, happy tears. I guess from laughing or something? I admit I’ve lost the metaphor, but let’s do this anyway…
The negative: They missed the playoffs by a mile, the goaltending wasn’t great, and they might not have a 60-point scorer.
Positive thought #1: We got into this a bit on Monday, but the Blue Jackets exceeded just about everyone’s expectations. Most of us had them as contenders for dead last, but instead they played fake-.500 hockey pretty much all year long. Sure, that cost them some lottery odds, but having a young team overachieve is never a bad thing.
Positive thought #2: It’s only been one year, but Brad Larsen looks like a good one behind the bench.
Positive thought #3: I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that Patrik Laine is back, but he doesn’t look broken in the same way he did under John Tortorella. Getting him signed will be tricky, but whether you want to look at him as a long-term piece or as trade bait, his production in stretches this year gave you reason for optimism. Mix in Cole Sillinger being here and Kirill Marchenko on the way, and the future is already taking shape.
(For what it’s worth, Blue Jackets fans apparently didn’t need this section, as they’re already mostly optimistic. Don’t worry, these get harder as we go.)
The negative: In what was supposed to be year one of their run of unparalleled success, or at least the year they pushed for a playoff spot, the Senators instead took a step backward and will finish behind last year’s pace.
Positive thought #1: I know we said we’d do three thoughts per team, but we probably only need one for Ottawa. You can mourn Eugene Melnyk and appreciate what he did for the team and the community, but a change in ownership will be the single best thing that could have happened to this franchise. There didn’t feel like there was a path to long-term success under Melnyk; now there could be.
Positive thought #2: It’s been clear from looking at the Senators’ roster and pipeline that they were going to need a few of the younger players to make the leap to a higher tier, while others at least didn’t regress. I’d argue that the trio of Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot and Tim Stützle have all stayed on track, but the big story might be Josh Norris breaking through as a legit 30+ goal guy. Right now he looks like a very good second-line center, and there’s a non-zero chance he may be more.
Positive thought #3: There hasn’t been much good news on the Matt Murray front, and it will be interesting to see how the team works its way out of that contract. But it no longer feels like a disaster because of Anton Forsberg’s emergence as a legitimate NHL goalie. Goaltending is weird and maybe this ends up being a career year, but the Senators might have their starter for the next few seasons, even if it’s not the guy they expected.
The negative: They were quite possibly the worst team in the league this year, and arguably one of the worst of the cap era.
Positive thought #1: That’s what they were trying to do, so at least they can execute on a plan.
Positive thought #2: There’s a ton of draft capital, including first-rounders this year from the Hurricanes and Avalanche, plus five picks in this year’s second and their own first, which will be in the top four. Most of that help won’t arrive for another few years, but this is a rebuild and you want as many lottery tickets as you can get. The Coyotes have a lot.
Positive thought #3: Nick Ritchie might not be a long-term piece of the puzzle, but he gives the Coyotes a nice proof-of-concept on a future sales pitch to potential players: Come to Arizona, play higher up the lineup, and rebuild your stat line and reputation outside the big market microscope. Some of those guys will stick around, other will turn into trade bait, and both will help the rebuild.
The negative: With the 2017-18 Golden Knights providing a best-case scenario for expansion success, the Kraken went into the year expecting to at least make a playoff push. Instead, they started slow and never really improved, not contending for anything other than dead last.
Positive thought #1: It was the best season in franchise history!
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