Bottoms Up is a weekly feature on Backhand Shelf that admits that sometimes the underdog doesn’t win: sometimes they just lose and lose and lose some more. Those losers also deserve to have their stories told.
The 2010-11 NHL season saw many tremendous tales of success. Corey Perry scoring 19 goals in his final 16 games to win the Rocket Richard trophy and carry the Anaheim Ducks into the playoffs. The Penguins battling the loss of their two biggest stars to injury to finish with the second most points in the Eastern Conference. Daniel Sedin responding to his brother Henrik’s Art Ross victory in 2010 with 104 points to win an Art Ross of his own. Tim Thomas capping off one of the most impressive regular seasons in NHL history with an astounding performance to win the Stanley Cup and the oldest player to ever win the Conn Smythe.
These are all marvelous stories and the players and teams involved all deserve praise and attention. But what about the other teams and players? What about the teams that faced adversity and tripped over it? The teams that hyped up their chances at making the playoffs at the start of the season, then found themselves hyping up a top five draft pick at the end of it. The teams that told their fans they were entering rebuilding mode…five years ago. What about those teams?
Not everyone can be a winner, but losers are people too. That’s why Bottoms Up will be telling their stories. It’s called Bottoms Up because it will be all about the teams at the bottom of the standings. Also, being a fan of a terrible team can really lead a person to the bottle.
Bottoms Up will be a weekly update on the teams at the bottom of the standings, explaining why everything is going wrong and whether there’s any hope for redemption. It will also keep an eye on teams in danger of slipping into the cellar and the players whose performances are so far below expectations that they actually become impressive accomplishments.
There’s a reason people enjoy blooper reels, America’s Funniest Home Videos*, and YouTube videos of people getting hit in the face. Part of it is schadenfreude, certainly, and sometimes there’s a certain car crash element to it where you simply can’t look away, but sometimes there’s something more. Failure is a reminder that other people screw up. And maybe, since professional athletes aren’t perfect, it’s okay when we mere humans make mistakes. I’m hoping Bottoms Up will be similarly therapeutic.
At this point, however, there’s no one really in the cellar, since some teams haven’t even played a single game yet. Instead, this first edition of Bottoms Up will cover the bottom two teams from the Eastern and Western Conference from last season and their prospects on escaping the NHL basement.
Despite a quiet off-season, the 2011-12 Islanders should be a much better team this season. Mark Streit, the team’s best defenceman and leading scorer in 2008-09, missed all of last season with a shoulder injury, but has fully recovered and was named the 13th captain of the franchise. Kyle Okposo, too, is healthy to start the year after suiting up in only 38 games last season.
With these two team leaders healthy, a talented group of youngsters continuing to develop, and Evgeni Nabokov finally reporting to Long Island, the Islanders are primed to escape the basement and potentially compete for a playoff spot. Sure, they’re a long shot, but they are one of those underdog teams that might actually avoid a season-long starring role in Bottoms Up.
The most likely team to take their place in the cellar is the Ottawa Senators, for the simple reason that they are not very good.**
Dale Tallon seems to manage hockey teams like he was playing a video game, throwing colossal amounts of money at free agents hoping they work out. Fortunately for him, he had a good reason to spend money this off-season as the Panthers needed to reach the cap floor. After finishing last in the Eastern Conference, they added Brian Campbell, Ed Jovanovski, Tomas Kopecky, Kris Versteeg, Sean Bergenheim, Scottie Upshall, Jose Theodore, Marcel Goc, Tomas Fleischmann, and Matt Bradley.
…hold on…a second…I’m a little…out of breath…
These kinds of mass overhauls often backfire, as it takes time for a team to gel together and develop chemistry. Also, they’ll be relying on unproven, yet talented, rookie Jacob Markstrom or Jose Theodore in goal. Yikes. They’ll need good goaltending too, since not a single player on the Panthers scored 50 or more points last season. Unless some of their skilled prospects go on a scoring spree, the Panthers will make like bloggers this season and never leave the basement.
Colorado allowed the most goals against of any team in the NHL last season and their off-season moves attempted to turn that around. While they drastically overpaid in their trade for Semyon Varlamov, especially considering the young Russian has never been a full-time starter, he is still a talented goaltender, and the team signed veteran J.S. Giguere as insurance. The team hopes that the addition of some size on the blueline in Jan Hejda, Erik Johnson, and Shane O’Brien will make a difference as well.
Scoring goals, however, will still be an issue. While Matt Duchene continues to develop, the team traded away emerging power forward Chris Stewart and young offensive defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk to acquire Johnson. Their leading scorer from the blueline, John-Michael Liles, signed with the Maple Leafs. The Avalanche will have a tough time preventing the first round pick they sent to Washington for Varlamov from being a lottery pick.
The Oilers finished dead last in the league last year, netting the first overall pick in the 2011 entry draft and picking Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. RNH will join a promising and incredibly talented group of young skaters. If only some of them were defencemen.
Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Linus Omark, and Magnus Paajarvi are all remarkable young talents, and the Oilers have some veterans in place to show them the ropes, including the hopefully healthy Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff as well as the returning Ryan Smyth. But they also have one of the worst defensive corps in the NHL. Still, Devan Dubnyk proved last season that he’s a capable goaltender, even with such a motley crew in front of him.
It’s hard to know what to expect from the Oilers this season. If Hall and Eberle continue their progression and Hemsky and Horcoff can stay healthy, they may be able to outscore their defensive troubles. If not, they’ll have to hope for some heroic goaltending from Dubnyk.
If the Oilers manage to bust out of the basement, look for the potential fall from grace for the Dallas Stars. Not because they lost Brad Richards, though that doesn’t help, but because they rode a wave of favourable percentages through the first half of last season then ran into the coral reef of reality in the second half, missing the playoffs. I think they’ll be in trouble this season; then again, they won their first game 2-1 over the Blackhawks, so what do I know?
* Incidentally, watching America’s Funniest Home Videos on YouTube is a little bit surreal.
**Professional groundbreaking analysis, friends. You can’t get that anywhere else.