2014-15 NHL Preview: The Contenders
And then there were seven. After covering the bottom feeders, the middle of the pack, and those that defy any logical projection, NHL season preview week wraps up today with our final group of teams: the best of the best.
If you’ve been following along all week, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for. Appearing on the list below all but guarantees that a team will go on to have a good season.1 By now you’re probably squirming with suspense, wondering whether your favorite team was fortunate enough to …
Wait, if you’ve been following all week, then by process of elimination you already know who’s on the list. Crap. I didn’t think this through very well.
Ah, well. Here are my picks, in no particular order, for the seven teams that enter the season as Stanley Cup favorites.
Los Angeles Kings
Last season: 46-28-8, 100 points, third place in the Pacific Division, won the Stanley Cup
Offseason report: Cap pressure prevented them from adding much, although they did manage to re-sign playoff hero Marian Gaborik as well as Matt Greene. Willie Mitchell and Colin Fraser were lost to free agency; both were solid contributors, but not critical pieces.
Minor tweaks aside, this year’s Kings will essentially be the same as last year’s version. That’s not good news for the rest of the league.
Outlook: The Kings finished last year ranked 25th in goals scored and first in goals allowed, so it’s not hard to see which end of the ice they’re best at. Team defense, from two-way force Anze Kopitar to blueline stud Drew Doughty, is excellent, and they implement Darryl Sutter’s system just about perfectly. Jonathan Quick is a divisive goalie; some view him as a sure-thing superstar, while others see merely a good goaltender on the league’s best defensive team, with a reputation inflated by a few playoff hot streaks. In either case, he’ll deliver strong numbers, and if he gets hurt, there’s always last year’s rookie breakout, Martin Jones.
That leaves the goal scoring, which has been the Kings’ weak spot for several years now. So far they’ve managed to flick the switch on the offense once the playoffs start, but that’s not something you want to count on every year. A full season of Gaborik will help if he can stay healthy all year, which he often doesn’t.
Key stat: 56.74 — the Kings’ Fenwick percentage at 5-on-5/close, the best in the league by a decent margin. In other words, no team has the puck more than L.A. This stat is also one of the best predictors we have of future success, which is why analytics guys get little hearts in their eyes whenever they talk about the Kings.
Best case: They continue to be impossible to score on, the offense finds a pulse, and they cruise through the year on the way to adding a Presidents’ Trophy to their hardware case.
Worst case: They once again struggle to score goals, and Quick and the defense lapse just enough that they take a small step back and into the mid-90s point range, which in the West means they have to sweat a little for their playoff spot.
Bold prediction: Coming off last year’s strong playoff run and a Conn Smythe near miss, Doughty rides that momentum and another strong season to his first career Norris.
New York Rangers
Last season: 45-31-6, 96 points, second in the Metro, lost to the Kings in the Stanley Cup Final
Offseason report: The Rangers turned over a big chunk of the bottom half of their roster, as cap pressure had them parting ways with useful contributors like Brad Richards, Benoit Pouliot, Brian Boyle, Derek Dorsett, and Anton Stralman. They restocked by adding a handful of players, most notable veteran blueliner Dan Boyle and winger Lee Stempniak.
Outlook: Despite the offseason shakeup, the Rangers are returning essentially the same core that made a run to the final last year. They’ll miss Derek Stepan for the season’s first month or two with a broken leg, but they’ll have a full season of Martin St. Louis, and the addition of Boyle should help. And of course, they have arguably the best goaltender on the planet in Henrik Lundqvist. They should at least match and probably exceed last year’s regular-season success. The deep playoff run is a longer shot, but certainly not out of the question.
Key stat: $81 million — the total amount of salary and buyouts on the books for the Rangers this season, the highest total in the league by almost $3 million. (They’re still under the $69 million salary cap, barely, because that’s based on the average annual value of each contract, not the total dollars paid out in a given year.)
Best case: They make it all the way back to the final, and this time they don’t suffer from awful puck luck once they get there.
Worst case: A long-term Lundqvist injury could drop them all the way out of playoff contention, although he’s been a workhorse his whole career, so that seems unlikely. More realistically, if aging veterans like St. Louis, Boyle, and/or Rick Nash start to slow down, it could spell trouble for a team that finished just 11th in the conference in goals scored last year. And remember, they’re coming off a short offseason, so fatigue could become a factor.
Bold prediction: We finally get an Islanders/Rangers playoff matchup for the first time in 20 years.
Last season: 54-20-8, 116 points, top seed in the Western Conference, lost in the second round
Offseason report: Despite a 116-point season, the Ducks went into the offseason feeling like they needed to play catchup with the Western Conference rivals. Their big move was trading for Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler; at 30 years old, he’s no sure thing, but he came relatively cheap and could combine with Ryan Getzlaf to give the Ducks the sort of one-two punch down the middle that can match up with the Kings or Blackhawks.
The Ducks also added Dany Heatley on a cheap deal and Clayton Stoner on a not-so-cheap one. They said good-bye to sometimes starter Jonas Hiller, as well as to retiring veterans Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu.
Outlook: If all goes well, the Ducks should be one of the best half-dozen teams in the league. Unfortunately, they could achieve that and still not get home ice in their own division. That’s life in the Pacific these days. If the Ducks can’t finish first, they probably need to go through both L.A. and San Jose just to get to the conference finals.
They did finish first last year, and in theory, adding Kesler should make them even better.2 The team has plenty of good young talent behind their superstar pair of Getzlaf and Corey Perry, and Heatley is an intriguing gamble. The blueline doesn’t feature a Norris-type stud, but it’s solid, and Bruce Boudreau is one of the best coaches in the league.
As with so many other teams, goaltending will be the big question; the Ducks will rely on youngsters John Gibson and Frederik Andersen. Both have been very good in limited playing time, including during last year’s playoffs, but with Hiller out of the picture, the kids are on their own now. This could be one of the best combos in the league within a few years, but Ducks fans may be holding their breath until they see it for a full season.
Key stat: 10.2 — the Ducks’ team shooting percentage last season, the highest in the league. Shooting percentage has a talent component, but it can also swing significantly year to year and tends to regress toward the league average of roughly 9 percent. That could signal that the Ducks are in for an offensive drop this season.
Best case: The goalies are fine, Kesler fits right in, Heatley finds a bit of his old magic, and the Ducks roll to another division title. Could they beat a team like the Kings or Blackhawks (or both) to reach the final? That’s a tough task, but remember, the Ducks came close to knocking off L.A. last year.
Worst case: The goalies struggle, the percentages catch up to the shooters, and it turns out Selanne and Koivu were more important in the locker room than they were on the ice. Of all the teams in this section, the Ducks are the one that seems most vulnerable to taking a steep drop. That’s not to say it’s going to happen, but there are a few warning lights blinking on this dashboard.
Bold prediction: Another 100-plus point season, another playoff loss to the Kings, and a 2015 offseason spent wondering what they have to do to take the next step.
Last season: 51-24-7, 109 points, first place in the Metro, lost in the second round
Offseason report: The Penguins’ summer was … interesting. Yes, let’s go with interesting.
They fired GM Ray Shero, replacing him with Jim Rutherford. After an odd delay, they eventually fired coach Dan Bylsma, too, and embarked on a search for a replacement that saw them rejected by their first choice. They ended up hiring Mike Johnston, who seems like a fine coach, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the whole process was a behind-the-scenes mess.
On the player side, they traded former 40-goal scorer James Neal to the Predators for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. They also lost two of their top defensemen in Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, both of whom left for Washington, but signed blueliner Christian Ehrhoff to a very nice one-year deal.
Outlook: That’s a lot of change for a team coming off a 109-point season, and it speaks to the growing sense that the Penguins just haven’t been good enough lately. That sounds like an odd thing to say about a team with a relatively recent Stanley Cup and eight straight 99-plus-point seasons,3 but when you’re gifted with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their primes, you’ve got a realistic shot at a dynasty. Instead, the Penguins haven’t won a playoff game past the second round since 2009, and the frustration is showing.
There’s still plenty of offensive talent, especially if Kris Letang is back to full health, and they’ve gone from being a top-heavy team with little depth to a more balanced look. Of course, all eyes will be on Marc-Andre Fleury, who enters the last year of his deal and is probably on his last chance to show that he’s a top goaltender, not just a mediocre one who wound up on a great team.
Key stat: .920/.922 — even-strength save percentage since 2007 of, respectively, Fleury and his primary backups. The backups have consistently matched or even outplayed him. That’s not what you want to see from any starter, especially a former first-overall pick you invested a $35 million deal in. If he doesn’t have a great season, he’s almost certainly done in Pittsburgh.
Best case: A team that had started to tune out Bylsma is revived by the roster shakeup and Johnston’s new voice, steamrolls through the Metro, then rides Crosby’s dominance to a Cup win. We all claim we saw it coming all along.
Worst case: Nothing quite clicks, Malkin or Crosby (or both) get hurt again, they struggle to secure a decent playoff seed, and then Fleury melts down again in the playoffs. We all claim we saw it coming all along.
Bold prediction: A slow start leads to an avalanche of mid-November “time to blow up the Penguins” hot takes. Then they win the division by 10 points.
St. Louis Blues
Last season: 52-23-7, 111 points, second in the Central, lost in the first round to Chicago
Offseason report: The big move was the signing of unrestricted free-agent center Paul Stastny, who got a four-year contract with a $7 million cap hit. That was the biggest deal of the UFA season in terms of average value, although the four-year term was less than most star free agents get, so it’s not as risky as it sounds. In other moves, Ryan Miller left in free agency as expected, Vladimir Sobotka bolted for the KHL, and they traded Roman Polak for fellow defenseman Carl Gunnarsson.
Outlook: Last year, the Blues won a franchise-record 52 games, and the addition of Stastny makes them even better this season. That signing sent a clear signal that the Blues are all-in on finally winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. On paper, there’s no reason to think they can’t do it.
Goaltending will be a question mark. Miller was a bust, and trading for him cost them the very solid Jaroslav Halak, so now they’re left with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen. That’s still an above-average combo, but not the kind of sure-thing pairing you’d like to have heading into this kind of make-or-break season.
Key stat: 0.47 — the swing in save percentage between Elliott’s best full season (a .940 in 2011-12) and his worst (.893 the year before). That’s a heck of a gap, and makes it hard to predict what level Elliott can be expected to play at. For what it’s worth, he wasn’t great in 2012-13, but put up a solid season last year.
Best case: The 2011-12 version of Elliott shows up, Stastny clicks immediately, they stay relatively healthy, and it all adds up to a championship.
Worst case: The 2010-11 version of Elliott shows up, Stastny has an off year, the Blues don’t even make the conference finals, Ken Hitchcock is fired, and they face the same sort of “now what the hell do we do?” type of offseason the Sharks just went through.
Bold prediction: Allen has taken over the starting role by the playoffs.
Last season: 54-19-9, league-leading 117 points, won the Presidents’ Trophy, lost in the second round of playoffs
Offseason report: The Bruins have been playing salary-cap roulette for years, and this summer it cost them a chance to re-sign Jarome Iginla. They also lost Shawn Thornton and Andrej Meszaros, while not really adding anything of consequence (although getting Dennis Seidenberg back to full health will give them a boost).
Outlook: The loss of Iginla hurts, but this is still the East’s best team, and maybe by a long way. No team is better at taking away the other team’s top threat, thanks to the Bruins’ holy trinity of center Patrice Bergeron, defenseman Zdeno Chara, and reigning Vezina winner Tuukka Rask. And unlike other strong defensive teams, Boston can actually put the puck in the net, too.
Their cap situation is still tight, and with some good young players emerging from rookie deals, they may not be able to keep the core together much longer. But for now, they’re a powerhouse … for one more year, at least.
Key stat: Plus-84 — the Bruins’ goal differential last year, a full 27 goals better than the next best teams’.4 They were the first team to top the plus-80 mark since 2010. They were good.
Best case: Pretty much exactly what we saw last year, without the whole “blowing a series to the hated Habs” thing.
Worst case: It’s honestly tough to come up with a scenario where the Bruins struggle that doesn’t involve a crush of injuries. In theory, they could have some sort of lingering hangover after the Montreal meltdown, Chara is old enough that his game could drop off significantly at some point, and maybe Rask is finally due for an off year. If all that happens and some other team surges, maybe the Bruins plummet down the Atlantic standings all the way to … second? That’s about the best I can do.
Bold prediction: The Bruins return to the Stanley Cup final, rolling through the Eastern Conference bracket in 15 games or fewer.
Last season: 46-21-15, 107 points, third place in the Central, lost to the Kings in the best conference finals ever played.5
Offseason report: Fairly quiet on the acquisition front, aside from signing Brad Richards to a nice little $2 million, one-year deal. They also signed Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to massive $84 million extensions that carry a record-breaking $10.4 million cap hit, but those don’t kick in until next season.
Outlook: The Blackhawks are widely thought to be one of (if not the) very best teams in the league, which is why it’s a little odd to look back and recall that they finished only third in their division last year. That says more about the Central than it does about Chicago, and with everyone expecting the Avalanche to take a step back, that should leave the Blackhawks battling the Blues for the division crown.
There’s really not much to criticize on this team, which is why it’s almost universally considered a Cup favorite. If there’s any note of concern, it comes from looking at the Blackhawks’ cap situation. They’re over the cap right now and don’t have anyone to put on the long-term injury list, so they’ll need to make a move to get under by next week. And once those new deals for Toews and Kane kick in, things suddenly get very, very tight for a team that already has Marian Hossa locked up forever and a lot of money invested in goalie Corey Crawford, who still has his detractors.
Key stat: 35 — secondary assists by Norris winner Duncan Keith, the most by a defenseman by a wide margin and second-most overall in the league. Secondary assists tend to fluctuate much more than goals or primary assists do, which suggests Keith could play at a similar level to last year but see his point total drop significantly.
Best case: The best case for us would be a rematch of their conference finals matchup with the Kings. The best case for the Blackhawks would be to win that series, then go on to capture their third Stanley Cup in six years. Neither of those outcomes is especially difficult to see happening.
Worst case: The Blackhawks cruise to an easy playoff berth, but lose out early to one of the division’s other established powerhouses, or maybe even an up-and-coming team like the Stars. This is also not all that hard to see happening, because the Central Division is stacked and the margin for error is going to be tiny.
Bold prediction: The Blackhawks face the Bruins in a seven-game Stanley Cup final classic. And yes, I know, I basically saved the least “bold” prediction for last, since Chicago and Boston are two of the consensus best teams in the league, and picking them doesn’t take any guts at all. I wish I believed a little more in the Blues, or could talk myself into the Lightning, but I’m just not quite there. And I want the record to show that I was this close to going with the Sharks as my Cup pick, before wimping out and stopping just short yesterday.
But instead, we’re left with the Bruins and the Blackhawks. Your winner and 2014-15 Stanley Cup champion: the Chicago Blackhawks, who capture their third Cup in six years, and the last before the salary cap tears them apart.
Enjoy the season, everyone. And hey, if you have friends who didn’t read this preview, be nice and don’t spoil the ending for them.