By: Lauren Burg
In the NHL teams go through changes and, at times, lose players that were majorly important to the success of those teams. It happens to every team; no team is spared; and it can result in teams going through more than one down, or declining, year. In a previous article I gave the five teams that have a bright future, using the number of key prospects under contract, minor league affiliates' success and top players with more than a year left remaining on their contracts. In this article, however, I plan to give the five teams I believe might be headed for a decline, using the number of key players that could be lost to free agency, retirement, etc. Without further ado, here are the five teams I think might be headed for at least a few declining years.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils are currently in the Eastern Conference finals so you might not think they could be in trouble after this season. The truth is that they could be though. Captain Zach Parise is a free agent this summer and his name has been floated around by a few teams, one being his hometown Minnesota Wild, already. Parise is half of what makes the Devils so good and he proved that this season into these 2012 playoffs. During the regular season he scored 31 goals and accumulated 69 points, helping the Devils to the number six seed in the Eastern Conference and a playoff berth. During this postseason he's been doing everything possible to make sure the Devils win another Stanley Cup before his contract expires, with six goals for 12 points in 16 playoff games thus far. To underscore his importance, with Parise playing in only 13 games prior to season-ending knee surgery in 2010-2011, the Devils missed the playoffs for the first time in years and finished near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
The Devils also could possibly lose defenseman Bryce Salvador to free agency this summer. Salvador has been a huge factor in the Devils' success this season, with nine points (all assists) and a plus-18 rating during the regular season. Salvador has continued to play well during this postseason, getting 10 points, three of them goals, and a plus-9 rating thus far. The last of the key free agents the Devils could lose this summer is a sure to be Hall-of-Fame goaltender in Martin Brodeur. At the age of 40 it's quite likely that Brodeur will retire after these playoffs end. His numbers, both regular season and playoffs, are phenomenal. To illustrate my point here, Brodeur, in 59 starts during the regular season, was 31-21-4 with three shutouts, a 2.41 goals against average (GAA) and a .908 save percentage. He continued to put up great numbers in the postseason as he, in 17 starts to this point, is 11-5-1 with one shutout, a 2.04 GAA and a .921 save percentage. Losing these three players, or even two, could be devastating enough to send the Devils into a decline.
Losing Semin, if he isn't re-signed, will likely be a big blow to the Caps. As much as he was often hot and cold he, along with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, helped to make the Caps' top line one of the toughest for opponents to play against. His production in the 2011-2012 regular season was amazing, as he put up 21 goals, 54 points and a plus-9 rating in 77 games played. In 14 postseason games he struggled a bit, notching only four points, but much of the team, including Ovechkin, also struggled.
Vokoun, brought in to be the starter last summer, really didn't live up to expectations. Then again he's always been a streaky goaltender, as can be evidenced by his years with the Florida Panthers. He also won more games than he lost, something that could play a role in the Caps making the playoffs, or even winning the division, in future years. To illustrate this, in 46 regular season starts, Vokoun was 25-17-2 with four shutouts, a 2.51 GAA and .917 save percentage. His backup, Michal Neuvirth, had a 13-13-5 record with three shutouts, a 2.82 GAA and .903 save percentage. Unfortunately for the Caps, both Neuvirth and Vokoun are injury prone and missed the entire 2012 postseason. Granted, rookie Braden Holtby was phenomenal, posting a 7-7-4 record, 1.95 GAA and .935 save percentage in all 14 games. However, without a high draft pick and few, if any, promising young goaltenders under contract the Caps could be in major trouble if Holtby were to get injured or go through a really bad stretch.
The Coyotes, though set at the goaltender position with Mike Smith as the starter, have a lot of other areas where they might end up losing key players. To start, forwards Ray Whitney, a key piece to the Carolina Hurricanes 2006 Stanley Cup win, and captain Shane Doan are both free agents. Losing them could potentially be devastating, especially to a team that struggles offensively as it is. Whitney, in all 82 regular season games, led the Coyotes with 24 goals, 77 points and a unheard of plus-28 rating. He cooled a bit though in his 16 postseason games, tallying only two goals, seven points and a minus-1 rating. Doan, on the other hand, struggled a tad during the regular season but came ready to play in the postseason. His numbers in 79 regular season games (22 goals, 50 points, minus-8 rating) as opposed to 16 playoff games (5 goals, 9 points, plus-2 rating) just prove that point.
Defensively, the possibility of losing either Adrian Aucoin, Michal Rozsival or both will be tough for the Coyotes to swallow. Both are great defenseman that can also help out offensively if needed. Rozsival, like Doan, had a very different regular season and postseason. Aucoin, in 64 regular season games, had two goals, nine points and a plus-14 rating. Rozsival, on the other hand, had one goal, 13 points and a plus-8 rating in 54 regular season games. Aucoin, in 11 postseason games, tallied two points (both assists) and a plus-4 rating while Rozsival, in 15 playoff games, was held without a point and finished with a minus-3 rating.
In goal, the Coyotes must hope Smith can stay healthy as his backup, Jason LaBarbera, in only 14 regular season starts, had a awful record of 3-9-3 with a 2.54 GAA and .912 save percentage. With these potential losses, and their lack of someone who can step up and consistently win should something happen to Smith, it's obvious that the Coyotes could be headed for a decline.
Calgary has been in decline for a few years actually and having to possibly replace Olli Jokinen on offense and Cory Sarich on defense, combined with the lack of backup experience to Miikka Kiprusoff, makes it hard to see the Flames decline ending in the next two years. To begin with, the potential loss of Jokinen, especially on the power play, will hurt big time, as Jokinen last season led the Flames with nine power play goals. He also, in all 82 games, put up 23 goals and 61 points, second only to Flames captain Jarome Iginla.
On defense, the possible loss of Cory Sarich could make an already weak defensive team even weaker, something that's evidenced by the number of Flames with a minus rating. Sarich's offensive production leaves much to be desired but he did, in 62 games this past regular season, manage one goal, seven points and, more important, a plus-1 rating. He also has loads of playoff experience, as he was a key part of the Tampa Bay Lightning's 2004 Stanley Cup winning team, the same one that defeated the Flames in seven games.
Goaltending wise, the Flames really only have Kiprusoff who they can rely on. His backups, Henrik Karlsson and Leland Irving, only have a combined 25 starts over the past two seasons. This past season, Karlsson was 1-4-2 with a 3.17 GAA and .900 save percentage while Irving was 1-3-3 with a 3.20 GAA and a .912 save percentage. With Kiprusoff getting up there in age and getting little defensive support the Flames could be in trouble for another year or two at least.
Detroit Red Wings
I know, I know. Red Wings fans will tell me that the Wings have made the playoffs for years, have all kinds of talent waiting in the minor leagues and so on and so forth. All of that is great but answer me this: Do you honestly believe your team won't go through, at the least, a slight decline if, or when, Nicklas Lidstrom decides to retire? His contract is up this summer and, unless he feels he can play another year or two at the same top level without injury, it's likely that he retires. At age 42, Lidstrom is still putting up good numbers, as evidenced by his 11 goals, 34 points and plus-21 rating in only 70 regular season games. However, Lidstrom was held pointless in only five postseason games. Makes you wonder if he was injured, something that could factor in his decision about retirement.
The Wings could also possibly lose Brad Stuart on defense as he's also a free agent this summer. Losing him would not be easy as his regular season numbers, six goals, 21 points, plus-16 rating in 81 games played, were all very good. His postseason numbers, on the other hand, were not that good, as Stuart only managed one point (an assist) and had a minus-5 rating in five postseason games. To get more of a perspective on his postseason play, however, I checked last season's playoff stats. Last season, in 11 playoff games, had two points (both assists) and a plus-6 rating. That leads me to believe that Stuart just faced a really good team this postseason, a team that was able to knock him off his game, and not that he isn't a good defenseman.
On offense, the Wings face the possibility of losing Jiri Hudler to free agency this summer. Hudler, in 81 regular season games, tallied 25 goals and 50 points, good for fifth on a team with lots of goal-scorers. He also had a plus-10 rating, proof that he was great both on offense and defense. Hudler, in the 2012 playoffs, also had two goals for two points. Regardless, losing Lidstrom, Stuart or Hudler, and those are just a few of the Red Wings' free agents this summer, could make it inevitable that the team will, at the least, go through a slight decline over the next few years.
****Note: This is the opinion of one writer. These teams could end up proving me wrong and improving, even with the potential losses of some key components. Also, it should be noted that since free agency doesn't begin until July 1st so a lot of this depends on whether players re-sign with their current team, sign somewhere else or retire, none of which is known for sure at this point. ****
*All New Jersey Devils statistics were found here: http://devils.nhl.com/club/stats.htm?season=20112012
*All Washington Capitals statistics were found here: http://capitals.nhl.com/club/stats.htm?gameType=3&season=20112012
*All Phoenix Coyotes statistics were found here: http://coyotes.nhl.com/club/stats.htm?gameType=2&season=20112012
*All Calgary Flames statistics were found here: http://flames.nhl.com/club/stats.htm?season=20112012
*All Detroit Red Wings statistics were found here: http://redwings.nhl.com/club/stats.htm?gameType=3&season=20112012