I don’t much care for sloganeering in sports. I understand that it’s a part of the marketing schemes, but I find it essentially meaningless. I’ve already bought into the product, I’m already sold on the fan experience, and I know it’s not for me, but it manages to gain at least some traction in the off-season. Recently, the Blue Jackets started rolling out their newest statement, “Join The Battle.” They were even so bold as to give a mission statement for the phrase and call it a rally cry for the team and the city alike.
Certainly it’s a massive improvement over the gasping, begging of “Gotta See it Live,” but it still doesn’t change my life. But let’s say this thing connects with somebody and maybe a new fan is brought into the fold (or an old fan is pulled deeper into the experience than before). What kind of Battle are they joining? They’re being asked to join us in supporting the “reigning” champions of the NHL basement battle.
That’s undoubtedly a rough place to join, right? Or is that right? What kind of changes from the sub-basement have happened since the start of the 30-team NHL? Let’s see what the Best Case Scenario, Worst Case Scenario and average expectations should be for a team coming off such a dismal year.
Best-Case Scenario: From the Bottom to the Top. In two cases since the 2000-2001 season, the last place team made a sudden and fantastic turnaround.
The first improvement was the addition of a good coach in Peter Laviolette. In his first head coaching gig, Laviolette showed the kind of success we’ve grown to know from him: that .585 point percentage is not far from his career .577. The next improvement was in the goaltending. Of all the dumb things, noted overrated goalie Chris Osgood led the way with a .912 SV%, a tremendous improvement from the 00-01 starter John Vanbiesbrouck and his .898.
The offense was also significantly improved, but at great cost to the franchise. Instead of rebuilding through the draft, the Islanders moved their 2nd overall pick and a young NHL defenseman for Alexei Yashin. Yashin was a superb player and certainly improved the offensively challenged New York team, but that pick and d-man have become at least as valuable as the Russian center: they are Jason Spezza and Zdeno Chara.
The second big move comes from the 2006-2007 Philadelphia Flyers (30th in the NHL; 56 points) to their 2007-2008 version (11th in the NHL; 95 points). How did they make such a dramatic shift? Their 2nd overall draft pick (James van Riemsdyk) didn’t join the club until the 2009-2010 season. What else did they do?
They did well in free agency, getting Danny Briere (their 2nd leading scorer in 07-08). They did well in trades, picking up Scott Hartnell, Kimmo Timonen, Joffery Lupul, and Jason Smith before the season, and then Vinny Prospal during the year. All six players were important contributors to the squad with Briere and Timonen being particularly valuable.
But perhaps most importantly, the core of their roster from the 30th overall year came back to life and stopped their team-wide under-performing. Jeff Carter and Mike Richards played more games and scored more points per game. RJ Umberger had his biggest season with the Flyers (following the worst of his career). Team goaltending didn’t change from the end of the previous year, but did improve as Marin Biron led the way for a full season (he was traded in February 2007 from Buffalo).
Worst-Case Scenario: Staying in the Basement. It is possible that things don’t improve very much. Four times out of 10, the last place team has made no positional improvement or only moved up one spot. Here are the teams that’s happened to:
2003-2004 Pittsburgh Penguins (30th in the NHL; 58 points); 2005-2006 Penguins (29th in the NHL; 58 points). Following the lockout, the pathetic Penguins made a huge leap in scoring (thanks largely to the 102 point arrival of one Sidney Crosby) but team defense continued to be worst in the league as, of all things, their .893 SV% goaltending in 03-04 was actually the better year.
2007-2008 Tampa Bay Lightning (30th in the NHL; 71 points); 2008-2009 Lightning (29th in the NHL; 66 points). Brutal defense and sub-par offense did the Lightning in during the 2007-2008 season (despite the point-per-game efforts of Lecavalier and St. Louis). A big slip in scoring and only a marginal increase in goaltending made the 2008-2009 season a losing effort.
2009-2010 Edmonton Oilers (30th in the NHL; 62 points); 2010-2011 Oilers (30th in the NHL; 62 points). In 2009-2010, the club was awful at scoring and preventing goals. You can copy/paste that sentence for the 2010-2011 campaign. Both years saw the Oilers in 26th or lower in team offense and team defense.
2010-2011 Edmonton Oilers (30th in the NHL; 62 points); 2011-2012 Oilers (29th in the NHL; 74 points). We’ve already covered the mess of the 2010-2011 year. Finally Jordan Eberle led the way for an improved scoring effort in the 2011-2012 season, and even the defense was improved. But the Oilers were simply not good enough to climb out of 29th place.
//But are those typical? Let’s get to the averages:
Typical Improvements for the 30th Place Team:
|NHL Places Gained||24||0||6.6|
|NHL Points Improved||44||-5||15.7|
It’s not a certainty, but those Joining the Battle now are probably in for a better year. Active (and effective) free agency and trades were essential to massively improved standing. It was also important for Philly and New York to note a jump from sub-.900 goaltending to something respectable, and for underachivers/injured players to come out of their horrendous slumps/unlucky streaks.
I know these comments sound like more of the same regurgitation about what the Blue Jackets need to do… but that’s the thing: these are examples of it actually happening. Even if we remove the Flyers and Islanders, a last place team averages an improvement of 3.1 places, something that isn’t quite so terrible as this past season. I don’t anticipate something that leads to the playoffs (after all, the goal scoring still needs to come from somewhere, especially when Nash is traded), but if Bobrovsky can re-find some of his 2010-2011 form, a climb out of the upper-20 places wouldn’t be out of the question.
Just be prepared: for the 30th overall team, 4 out of 10 following years are soul-crushingly terrible again. 4 out of 10 see 7 places of improvement or more (the other 2 are 3-4 places). Blind hope could just as easily lead to sour disappointment as it could total elation. Know that when you’re Joining The Battle at this point, another year of complete failure is just as common as marked improvement.