Sports Hockey

TRAIKOS

Playoff teams last season find it a struggle a year later

By Michael Traikos, Postmedia Network

Jets defenceman Toby Enstrom (left) and Panthers right winger Jaromir Jagr (right) tangle during NHL action in Winnipeg on Dec. 15, 2016. (Brian Donogh/Winnipeg Sun)

Jets defenceman Toby Enstrom (left) and Panthers right winger Jaromir Jagr (right) tangle during NHL action in Winnipeg on Dec. 15, 2016. (Brian Donogh/Winnipeg Sun)

When the New York Islanders fired head coach Jack Capuano on Tuesday, it was an inevitable decision for a team that had won only 17 of 42 games this season.

Based on pre-season predictions, it was also totally unexpected.

The Islanders had been a playoff team in three of the last four seasons. After advancing to the second round last year by upsetting the Panthers, the John Tavares-led team seemed to be trending upwards. But then forwards Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen (42 combined goals last season) walked in free agency and GM Garth Snow gambled and lost on Andrew Ladd and Jason Chimera (eight goals each this year).

Halfway into the season, the Islanders are the worst team in the Eastern Conference and are 28th overall in the league. But the surprising thing is that they are not alone.

Seven of the 16 teams that made the playoffs last year are currently out of a playoff spot, including Florida, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Philadelphia, Dallas and Nashville. It is part of the reason why a team like the Toronto Maple Leafs, who finished last overall in 2015-16, have sped up the rebuild and are third in their division, with so many games in hand that they might as well be in second place.

It is also why two coaches have already been fired — with potentially more on the way if this trend continues.

From the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers to the Dallas Stars and Winnipeg Jets, here are five teams that are currently underachieving.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

This year: 6th in Atlantic (12th in East)

Last year: 2nd in Atlantic (6th in East)

What’s gone wrong? For the second straight year, the Lightning lost Steven Stamkos to a long-term injury. But unlike last season, where the team never seemed to miss a beat without their captain in the lineup, Stamkos’ absence has been noticed a whole lot more. The team is ranked 16th in goals per game, but it’s the goaltending — Andrei Vasilevskiy and Ben Bishop have the sixth-worst combined save percentage — that is really hurting Tampa Bay.

Can it be fixed? Stamkos, who underwent knee surgery in November, is expected back sometime after the trade deadline in March. It could be the perfect addition for a team that is only three points back of the final wild card spot.

WINNIPEG JETS

This year: 6th in Central (12th in West)

Last year: 7th in Central (11th in West)

What’s gone wrong? Goaltending is once again Winnipeg’s Achilles heel, with Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson combining for a sub-.900 save percentage. When Patrik Laine was healthy and on pace for 40 goals, the Jets were almost overcoming that aspect of their game. But with Laine sidelined indefinitely with a concussion, the Jets have lost four of five games.

Can it be fixed? Winnipeg recalled Ondrej Pavelec from the minors to give the team another option in net. The veteran goalie helped guide the Jets to a playoff berth two years ago. But Pavelec is 8-7-2 with a 2.78 goals-against average in the AHL this year. In other words, don’t expect any miracles.

FLORIDA PANTHERS

This year: 5th in Atlantic (11th in East)

Last year: 1st in Atlantic (3rd in East)

What’s gone wrong? Injuries have hurt the Panthers, who have been without Jonathan Huberdeau all season and are currently missing Aleksander Barkov. But it’s more than that. Jaromir Jagr, who was a pleasant surprise last season, has scored eight goals and is playing more like his actual age. Add it up and Florida is the fourth-worst offensive team in the league, averaging just 2.28 goals per game connecting on just 14.6% of its power play attempts.

Can it be fixed? The Panthers, who already fired their head coach, are 9-8-7 since replacing Gerard Gallant in November. In other words, the season cannot end fast enough for a team that should have a good shot at the No. 1 pick in the draft.

DALLAS STARS

This year: 5th in Central (11th in West)

Last year: 1st in Central (1st in West)

What’s gone wrong? This is the real surprise. And yet, looking at what has been the problem for the Stars — goaltending, defence — it really shouldn’t be. One of these days, Dallas will get a true No. 1 goalie. But with Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi unable to stop a beach ball, winning games is harder than it should be. Case in point: it took them scoring seven goals to beat the Rangers 7-6 on Tuesday night.

Can it be fixed? The Stars are only two points out of a playoff spot, so the season is far from over. But they will have to fix the goaltending, which makes them a prime landing place for the Lightning's pending free agent Ben Bishop at the trade deadline.

NEW YORK RANGERS

This year: 4th in Metropolitan (7th in East)

Last year: 3rd in Metropolitan (4th in East)

What’s gone wrong? Based on their current position, which doesn’t look that much different than last year’s, you might say nothing. But the Rangers are leaking a ton of water. They have lost their last three games in spectacular fashion, with Henrik Lundqvist having allowed 20 goals in his last four starts. The former King of New York, who has been pulled in each of his last two starts, has a .902 save percentage and a 2.89 goals-against average. “I feel like it’s embarrassing and frustrating and disappointing at the same time,” Lundqvist told reporters after a 7-6 loss to Dallas on Tuesday.

Can it be fixed? Lundqvist is having the worst year of his career, but New York doesn’t have to be a one-goalie team. Antti Raanta, who is currently nursing a lower-body injury, is 10-4-0 with a .923 save percentage. Once he returns, look for him to unseat the King.

mtraikos@postmedia.com

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