Only a year ago, the New Jersey Devils, Phoenix Coyotes, Philadelphia Flyers and Nashville Predators were taking part in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
After missing the cut in 2011, the Devils staged a stunning rebound, marching to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, where they fell to the LA Kings in six games. Along the way, they eliminated the Flyers in the Eastern Conference semi-finals.
The Coyotes not only won their first playoff series since 1987 (when they were the original Winnipeg Jets), but advanced to the 2012 Western Conference Final, eliminating the Predators in a five-game conference semi-final along the way. The Predators had reached that series by eliminating the Red Wings in their conference quarterfinal in five games.
In most predictions entering this season, these four were expected to be playoff contenders. Instead, the Coyotes, Flyers and Predators have been eliminated from contention, while as of this writing (April 21) the Devils are on the brink of elimination.
Over the coming weeks there will be plenty of analysis over what went wrong for these clubs, centering in part around the impact this shortened season had upon their respective performances.
The effect of a shortened schedule shouldn’t be downplayed. It’s possible these teams could have overcome their current struggles and qualified for the playoffs over an 82-game schedule.
Injuries undoubtedly played a significant role, as key players (Ilya Kovalchuk, Martin Brodeur, Mike Smith, Radim Vrbata, Scott Hartnell, Daniel Briere, Patric Hornqvist) were sidelined for considerable periods of time.
The loss of stars to free agency last summer (Zach Parise, Ryan Suter) and career-ending injury (Chris Pronger), as well as the subsequent inability to find suitable replacements, also took its toll.
Offense was a substantial problem for three of these four clubs. The Coyotes (20th), Predators (29th) and Devils (30th) were in the bottom third of the league in scoring, while the Flyers were a respectable 13th overall.
The power-play was an issue for the Devils (23rds) and Coyotes (24th), while the Predators (29th) struggled on the penalty-kill. Of the four, the Flyers fared worst in goals-against per game (25th), well behind the Coyotes (16th).
Their respective improvement could depend upon their respective managements off-season moves.
With the salary cap declining to $64.3 million, the Flyers currently have the least cap space to work with (a little over $75K).
The Flyers will get some cap relief when Chris Pronger (concussion) is placed on LTIR again, freeing up over $4.9 million. Either Briere ($6.5 million) or goalie Ilya Bryzgalov (over $5.66 million) could be amnesty buyout candidates this summer. As they have their core players under contract for next season, that would provide room for significant off-season additions via trade or free agency.
The Predators have over $23 million in cap space, but in terms of actual dollars, they’ve invested over $46.7 million into 13 players for next season. Still, ownership intends to be a “cap team” next season, so there’s a willingness to spend which wasn’t there in previous years. Like the Flyers, the Predators have their core players under contract.
Next are the Coyotes, with over $24.65 million invested in cap space, but with over half their roster slated for free agency. Among the notables are goalie Mike Smith and forward Mikkel Boedker, Boyd Gordon and Lauri Korpikoski.
Finally, there’s the Devils, with over $25 million in projected cap space, and Patrik Elias, David Clarkson, Adam Henrique and Marek Zidlicky to either re-sign or replace.
Of these four teams, the Flyers and Devils appear to be in transition.
The Flyers have a number of promising young forwards who had little difficulty finding the back of the net, but keeping the puck out of their own was another issue. They’ve yet to recover from the loss of Pronger, and failed to find a suitable replacement for the departed Matt Carle. Bryzgalov’s woes as a Flyer have been well-documented.
Losing Zach Parise was a significant blow for the Devils they never suitably addressed this season. If they lose Elias and Clarkson to unrestricted free agency, it will seriously hamper their playoff hopes for next season unless they can find decent replacements. They’ve been missing a top-two puck-moving defenseman since Brian Rafalski left town in 2007, and have yet to find a successor for the ageing Brodeur.
The Predators were willing to spend big last year to retain their key free agents, doing so successfully with Pekka Rinne and Shea Weber (the latter via matching an offer sheet), but they never got over the loss of Ryan Suter to free agency. Offense was also a significant problem area this season, and with David Legwand and Mike Fisher both heading toward their mid-thirties, they must find depth at center.
As for the Coyotes, they keenly felt goalie Mike Smith’s absences to injury, plus they’re still lacking scoring punch. Hovering over everything, of course, is the ongoing uncertainty over their future in Glendale, as the NHL desperately tries to find ownership willing to keep them there.
It remains to be seen, of course, if these four clubs will quickly overcome this season’s failure and return to playoff contention next season, or if they’re sliding into decline. The moves by their respective managements this summer could ultimately decide their respective fates.