Success and failure are greatly overrated. But failure gives you a whole lot more to talk about— Hildegard Knef
Hope springs eternal. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. No matter what quasi-hackneyed quotation one chooses to believe when starting a new venture, a cold dose of reality will hit many of the participants at some point down the line. After all, sports and life have an element of zero-sum gain intrinsic to their very natures: for one to win, another must lose. Given that sports teams are primarily measured by this standard, they are especially vulnerable when best-laid plans go awry.
Assuming there is an upcoming NHL season, one thing is certain: abject uncertainty. The Los Angeles Kings are considered amongst the favorites to win the Cup once again, with some pundits labeling them as having an excellent chance to repeat due to their young core, deep roster, outstanding goaltending and other tangible and intangible factors. Note that just one year ago, however, the Kings were amongst the surest bets to not seriously challenge for the Cup in the entire NHL. Until their remarkable 2012 playoff run, the Kings hadn’t reached the second round of the playoffs since 2000-01.
There are a number of teams with the potential of being ultimately deemed overrated for this upcoming season. Frankly, even as a long-time fan of the Kings, it’s hard for me to dismiss them as a possible candidate. However, there are certainly plenty of other clubs facing the same potential fate. Thus, the following are the five teams most likely to be deemed overrated in their quest for the Cup before it’s all said and done, using current Las Vegas odds as the benchmark (note: for this discussion, VegasInsider.com odds were used as source material. Other oddsmaking services may show varying results).
#5: Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres are one of those under-the-radar teams, perhaps unfairly overshadowed in a division that has three “original six” clubs within its midst. The Boston Bruins won the Cup just two seasons ago, Ottawa bounced back from a poor 2010-11 campaign to make the playoffs last year, and although Toronto and Montreal have had their share of post-lockout struggles (particularly the Leafs), each has a fan base amongst the most rabid in the NHL. The Sabres may have missed the playoffs three out of the past five seasons, but have not had a sub-.500 record in ten years.
Starting with a flurry of pre-deadline moves in February, the Sabres began to shape themselves for the upcoming NHL season. Cody Hodgson and Alexander Sulzer were received in trade from the Vancouver Canucks. Gritty centerman Steve Ott and large-framed defenseman Adam Pardy were acquired from the Dallas Stars for Derek Roy. Other smaller moves were made, with the hopes that the team could capitalize on their 20-7-7 season-ending run and break through this year. As of today, Vegas pegs their chances to win East at 10/1, fifth best in the the conference, with their Cup chances at 20/1, tied for tenth amongst the 30 NHL teams.
Why they are overrated: Even with their great record over the final 34 games of last year, it is highly premature to presuppose that the Sabres have ascended to the ranks of a top-five team in the East. Buffalo has major questions up the middle, and their offense managed just 218 goals in 2011-12 (although, as with Los Angeles, it improved markedly down the stretch). Special teams were mediocre, and although Ryan Miller is one of the very best in the league, he hasn’t been as dominant over the previous two seasons as he was earlier in his career. The Sabres are probably a bubble playoff team, depending upon various things going their way, but it’s a reach to suggest they are amongst the very best the conference has to offer.
#4: Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks have serious firepower in their top-six forward ranks and a balanced defense. Last season, they finished sixth in the West with 101 points, losing 4-2 in the conference quarterfinals to the Phoenix Coyotes. Vegas has them tied with the Canucks, Rangers and Kings at 10/1 to win the Cup, just a hair behind the early-favorite Pittsburgh Penguins.
Why they are overrated: Chicago will likely have depth issues, as Kane, Toews, Sharp and Hossa eat up over $23.7 million of cap space on offense and Seabrook, Keith, Hjalmarsson and Oduya take up another $20.3 million on defense. Furthermore, the team has committed long-term to goaltender Corey Crawford, whose 2.72/.903 stat line was amongst the weakest in the league for a starting goaltender. The Hawks were terrible on special teams last season, and although they picked up Oduya and Brookbank, were relatively quiet at the trade deadline and throughout the summer. They are almost a lock for the playoffs, but Chicago doesn’t appear to have the muscle to be considered at the same level as some of the other second-best teams the oddsmakers are pegging to start the season.
#3: Philadelphia Flyers
Like the Blackhawks, the Flyers appear utterly stacked on offense. Giroux, Couturier, Schenn, Voracek and Simmonds make up a pretty scary young group of forwards, rounded out by veterans Hartnell, Talbot, and Briere. The Flyers are so loaded offensively that they felt they could afford to ship a young forward oozing with potential (James van Riemsdyk) to Toronto for young shutdown defenseman Luke Schenn. Vegas pegs them as the East’s third-best team at 6/1 to win the conference, tied for sixth to win the Cup at 12/1.
Why they are overrated: Although the Schenn pickup should bolster a blue line under fire much of last year, and a full year of Niklas Grossman will certainly help, the defensive half of the ice is still the team’s Achilles’ heel going into the 2012-13 campaign. Chris Pronger still has “good days and bad days” according to GM Paul Holmgren. He will likely miss a substantial portion of the season, if not the entire year. Without his physical presence, the defense just doesn’t have much of an element of intimidation. Meanwhile, Ilya Bryzgalov has to put together a much more consistent campaign than he did in 2011-12, no small feat considering the white-hot glare of fan expectations. The Flyers should also land in the postseason, but the defense and goaltending give pause to the notion they are amongst the conference’s elite.
#2: Minnesota Wild
Spend $96 million, watch your fortunes improve dramatically in the eyes of the pundits. The Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signings alone have evidently elevated the West’s fourth-worst team into playoff contention according to Vegas — this despite four straight seasons of missing the postseason. The 2011-12 campaign was the franchise’s worst since 2001-02.
Why they are overrated: It’s very difficult to imagine two players — even those the likes of Parise and Suter — turning the team’s fortunes around that quickly. The Wild’s offense was anything but wild last year, finishing dead last in the NHL at 2.02 goals/game, and has been in the bottom ten since 2008-09. Yes, the Kings’ offense finished just slightly ahead of the Wild last season and yet they ran away with the Cup, but their offense was one of the league’s best after the trade for Jeff Carter in February. Minnesota’s, on the other hand, was consistently poor all season long. There is no question Parise will help jump-start the moribund attack and Suter is an all-around puck-mover, but there’s a long way to go to improve the offense. Until then, leapfrogging over that many teams to nab the franchise’s first playoff spot in five years seems to be, at best, a stretch.
#1: Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings will probably be pretty darned good this year. Any team that starts with Datsyuk and Zetterberg up the middle and has four returning 50 point scorers is going to be proficient offensively. Meanwhile, although they lost Nicklas Lidstrom to retirement, the top four defensemen look solid, and Jimmy Howard had top-tier stats after a sub-par 2010-11 season. Vegas has their odds of winning the West at 6/1, fourth best in the conference, and 12/1 to lift the Cup.
Why they are overrated: Two words: Father Time. The Wings are getting old. Bertuzzi is 37, Samuelsson 36, Datsyuk 34. Cleary will be 34 in a few months, Franzen 33. Zetterberg is on the eve of his 32nd birthday. The defense is much younger, with only Kronwall on the wrong side of 30. However, time inexorably marches on, and with that factor in play, coupled with middling special teams and early playoff losses in each of the past three seasons, Detroit seems like a prime candidate to experience a significant drop-off this year. Don’t worry, Wings fans. No matter when it finally happens, you’re just like the Terminator — you’ll be back.
Walter McLaughlin is a Los Angeles Kings correspondent for The Hockey Writers. He is an avid sports fan, having followed the Kings since living in L.A. in the mid-1970’s, as well as suffering through Seattle sports teams’ general futility. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Finance and has worked in community banking for over 25 years, specializing in SBA loans. He is married and has two daughters.