NHL: Over/Under – 5 Underperforming Teams

SINGING THE BLUES: After a strong start, St. Louis has lost four of five in February, and has fallen to third place in the Central division.

Last week we profiled five underperforming and five overperforming NHL players from the first month of NHL action in 2013. This week, we will do the same analysis on some of the 30 NHL clubs.

Read on to find out which five NHL clubs are underperforming relative to talent and/or expectations thus far in 2013.

Washington Capitals (4-8-1, 30th overall in the NHL)
Washington Capitals at Tampa Bay Lightning (-162, 5.5)
If  games were played on paper, the Capitals would be a lock for the postseason. They have two solid young goaltenders, a balanced defensive group, and a nice mix of size, skill, and two-way play up front. However, they have really struggled out of the gate in 2013, and currently sit dead last in the NHL. There is no shortage of blame to go around.

GM George McPhee overreacted a few years ago when the Capitals were bounced in the postseason by the sublime goaltending of Jaroslav Halak. Instead of tinkering with his offensive juggernaut, McPhee tried to overhaul the philosophy of the team. One problem – he didn’t get buy in from his top players. Doomed to fail from the start.

-Three coaching changes in less than two years equals a lot of confused players and a lack of a true team identity.

-Alexander Semin was unfairly targeted as a scapegoat by former teammates and those in the media, and he is now flourishing in Carolina.

-Alex Ovechkin doesn’t play the game with the same youthful exuberance as he used to. He is a shadow of his former self, and as a hockey fan it is quite sad to watch.

-Both Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby have been shaky at times between the pipes and neither has grabbed a stranglehold on the starting gig (which is what Adam Oates was hoping would happen).

-John Carlson, who has developed into one of the best young defensemen in the game, has been struggling mightily this season. He isn’t a defenseman the Capitals can count on right now.

-The Capitals, once the most exciting team in hockey, have become somewhat of a circus in recent years. Can they get back to contender status? Many believe that ship has already sailed for Washington.

Los Angeles Kings (4-5-2, 24th overall in the NHL)
Los Angeles Kings to Win Western Conference +1200
Cut the Kings a bit of slack for their slow start – after winning the Stanley Cup last summer, many players on the team didn’t train with the same drive and purpose during the offseason (let’s just say there was a fair bit of partying on the calendar). Jonathan Quick looks shaky this season, and he didn’t get much offseason work in either as he was busy rehabbing from back surgery.

The defense is missing its two shutdown defenders – Matt Greene is out for the season, and there is no timetable for Willie Mitchell’s return, either. Up front, the Kings aren’t getting much offense from anyone right now – Anze Kopitar leads the way with only seven points in 10 games.

The Kings are too talented, too big, and too deep to continue to struggle. Expect them to find a way into the postseason – maybe they turn things around late in the season and sneak into the playoffs as the eighth seed. That seemed to work out OK for them last time…

St. Louis Blues (6-5-1, 18th overall in the NHL)
St. Louis Blues at Detroit Red Wings (-138, 5.5)
The Blues were tabbed by many as the best team in the Western Conference, but they haven’t played like it through the first quarter of the season. Brian Elliott has struggled mightily as the starting goaltender (Jaroslav Halak remains out with a groin injury), and the normally stingy Hitchcock-led defense has allowed 40 goals in only 12 games.

Captain David Backes is never one to shy away from speaking his mind, and he ripped into his teammates recently.

“We’ve got too many guys out there looking at the stat sheet wondering how many goals and assists, cookies they’ve got rather than taking a hit to make a play and getting run over so we can get a puck out so that your teammates can have a three-on-two,” Backes said. “Or so you can block a shot or kill a penalty when you really need it so we can stay in a game. We just don’t have that desperation, that accountability, that responsibility to each other.”

When asked if something can be said as a leader, Backes quickly offered: “The talking’s done. We’ve said everything that needs to be said, gone over game plans and talked about strategy and ideology.

“It’s time to put the boots on and go do it or else pack your bags and go home because it’s slowly slipping, but there’s time left where we can right the ship and play our hockey. When we play our hockey, we love our chances against anyone.”

It isn’t hard to figure out who Backes is talking about – like the same players who got coach Davis Payne fired with their lack of effort and team buy-in. And to make matters worse, the Blues have lost five straight games, and Elliott has been ventilated during that stretch (25 goals against).

It’s only been nine games for Elliott, but his numbers are atrocious this season. He has a 3.57 goals against average and an absurdly low .849 save percentage. Compare to last season’s 1.56 GAA and .940 save percentage and, well, you don’t need me to point out the disparity there.

If you go back through Elliott’s career there is one word that pops to mind about those 2011-12 numbers: anomaly. Past performances are always the best indicator of future performance. In that regard a regression was certainly not a surprise.

However this big of a step back has been shocking. It’s a total free-fall.

Rookie goaltender Jake Allen is making his NHL debut tonight – can he stop the bleeding?

New York Rangers (7-5-0, 15th overall in the NHL)
New York Islanders at New York Rangers (-225, 5.5) 
The Rangers are playing decent hockey this season, but they haven’t really got going just yet. Rick Nash has been fantastic up front – his production isn’t at the elite level that many expected, but he is right in line with his career numbers, and he is playing with a lot of determination (something that he didn’t always do in Columbus).

They have won three straight games (even after blowing a 3-0 lead against Boston on Tuesday evening) and will likely finish near the top of the standings in the Eastern Conference, but starting out 7-5-0 isn’t what many expected from arguably the best team in the league (on paper).

There aren’t many players who can do this:

Detroit Red Wings (7-4-1, 13th overall in the NHL)
St. Louis Blues at Detroit Red Wings (-138, 5.5)
Detroit’s struggles this season (if you can call them that) haven’t been unexpected. The team has had issues with breaking the puck out of its own zone, as they don’t have the steady Nick Lidstrom back there to zing out perfect outlet passes any more. The loss of Brad Stuart to San Jose was another hole that the team didn’t replace, and because of this their forwards have to work harder in the defensive zone (which takes away from creating scoring chances at the other end of the rink).

This is a period of transition in Detroit. Jimmy Howard has been a bright spot in goal, and the stars up front are excelling (especially Henrik Zetterberg, who has been flat out sensational in 2013). Niklas Kronwall has been great as the club’s top blue liner, but Detroit needs another defenseman or two to emerge if they want to challenge for the Central Division crown.

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