Thursday, April 25, 2013

Judging Non-Playoff Teams in a Shortened NHL Season

By Mike Chen

Forty-eight games is roughly half of a regular NHL season. If things had started as normal in October, 48 games would plant us somewhere in January — the trade deadline would just be around the corner instead of teams either gearing up for the Stanley Cup playoffs or packing their bags for Vegas. For those teams that are headed to a non-playoff off-season, there has been plenty of grumbling among fans (and if you're looking for a silver lining to the lockout, at least it shortened the torture of a bad season).

However, it's important to be objective regarding the results of a lockout-shortened season. Every team's situation is a little different, but there are certainly teams that have to wonder if the luxury of a full season might have changed things. For example, the Carolina Hurricanes might have been able to weather the storm if they had time to resolve their goaltending situation. Similarly, Ilya Kovalchuk was the straw stirring the New Jersey Devils, and his loss led to their inevitable downfall. The Florida Panthers lost key players at all positions during the first half of March, making it nearly impossible for them to capitalize on the momentum from last year's playoff run.

Of course, there are teams that would have probably been destined for the scrap heap whether they played 48 games or 82 games. The Edmonton Oilers carry a ton of forward talent, but are undersized with many defensive issues; they're simply a poorly constructed top-heavy team. The Colorado Avalanche face both systemic and roster issues, and that starts from the head of the beast.

But for the teams that fall into that gray area of "things might have changed," it's easy for fans to be reactive and consider wholesale changes. In most of the cases, though, these are focused issues that have been exposed due to circumstance.

Consider the Hurricanes — with Cam Ward out, Carolina's large shots-against total impacted the team's ability to defend a lead sans an elite goalie. The issue here, then, probably isn't the organization's lack of goaltending depth, but more so the defensive side of Kirk Muller's system. Similarly, the Devils were exposed as a razor-thin forward group without Ilya Kovalchuk, and that demonstrates the need to address the giant hole left by Zach Parise's departure, either by a single player or by committee.

The eventual Stanley Cup winner will celebrate a championship won the same way it is any other season — 16 wins over four rounds. For those teams that don't make the annual tournament, though, it's reasonable to consider the overall record as an asterisk season. Had this been a full 82-game season, the issues created by injuries could have been alleviated simply over time or through the trade deadline. Instead, there's a great air of what might have been for a few squads, and while there's disappointment in squandering a season of potential, the unique circumstances of the 2013 NHL season mean that there doesn't necessarily have to be a panic button — yet.

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