Today marks the end of the last week without regular-season hockey until the playoffs arrive in April. It also marks the end of Grantland’s season preview week. On Tuesday, we shook our heads sadly at the Bottom-Feeder Division. On Wednesday, we shrugged our shoulders at the Middle-of-the-Pack Division. And yesterday, we threw our hands in the air over the confounding No-Clue Division.
That leaves only one group left to go: the Contenders Division. The seven teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup. Other teams will spend the year talking about progress and moral victories and finding something positive to take out of that loss. Not these guys. It’s Cup or bust, right out of the gate. And the odds are good one of them will get it.
If you’ve been checking off the teams throughout the week, you may have noticed something interesting about today’s list: It’s going to be heavily tilted to the East, with five of the seven teams coming from the Eastern Conference. What’s up with that? Has the historically weaker conference finally caught up?
Maybe, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. A more likely explanation is that this year’s East is up for grabs, with up to a half-dozen teams that could realistically take the top spot without it being considered a surprise. Meanwhile, the West is somewhat more top-heavy, with the Hawks and the Ducks and (maybe) the Kings settling in as the consensus picks. It’s tough to be a Cup favorite if there’s a team in your conference that’s a solid step or two ahead of you, so the West ends up with fewer top-tier teams even though it may well be the better conference yet again.
With that out of the way, on to the contenders …
Last season: 48-28-6, 102 points, third in the Central and seventh overall, won the Stanley Cup.
Offseason report: Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman got back from the parade, finished off his beer, and then blew the dust off the “How to retool after a Cup win” manual he’s spent the past few years writing. Once again, cap pressure forced the Hawks to part with some valued pieces, including Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya (both of whom ended up in Dallas), Brad Richards (Detroit), and Brandon Saad (Columbus). Most teams would have a tough time withstanding that sort of exodus. Most teams aren’t the Blackhawks.
Outlook: Losing Sharp, Saad, and others will hurt. But the core is still in place, and as long as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith are playing at their peak, the Blackhawks will be contenders. That’s not a sure thing — Kane’s sexual assault investigation is ongoing and could still result in charges that could take him out of the lineup — and every team eventually runs into bad luck with injuries or off years. But as long as those three are in the lineup and playing well, the Hawks are close to playoff locks.
Key number: 65 — Number of playoff games the Blackhawks have played over the last three years. That’s one more than the 64 the Kings played from 2012 to 2014, a number everyone latched on to as the prime culprit in their disappointing 2014-15 season. That’s not to say the Hawks will miss the playoffs, but at some point fatigue has to be a concern.
Watchability index: 9/10. If you don’t like watching Keith play hockey, there’s either something seriously wrong with you or you’re cheering for Chicago’s opponents.
Best case: There hasn’t been a repeat Cup winner in the salary-cap era, and nobody’s even made it back to the final since the 2009 Penguins–Red Wings rematch. But the Hawks could absolutely pull it off, and with so much of the Central in flux, their first division title in three years is there for the taking too.
Worst case: Kane’s situation drags on, Keith and Marian Hossa occasionally look like guys in their thirties instead of cyborgs, the top six misses Sharp more than expected, and the accumulated weight of the last three postseasons drags everyone down into an off year. They still make the playoffs but bow out early.
Suggested slogan: We almost made it through an entire preview without anyone mentioning that Corey Crawford might be overrated.
Bold prediction: The Hawks have a typical Hawks year, cruising through the regular season before slamming on the gas once the playoffs arrive. But this time, there’s not enough left in the tank for a full trip; they don’t make it out of Round 2.
New York Rangers
Last season: 53-22-7, 113 points, first in the Metro and first overall, lost in the conference finals.
Offseason report: The Rangers dealt backup goalie Cam Talbot to the Oilers and lost Martin St. Louis to retirement. They also swapped Carl Hagelin for Emerson Etem in a cap-inspired move. But the biggest change came in the front office, where longtime GM Glen Sather stepped aside. Jeff Gorton replaces him.
Outlook: The Rangers are one of only two teams (joining the Hawks) to have been to the final four in each of the last two seasons. They’ve been knocking on the door; the question is how much time they have left to step through.
The Rangers aren’t exactly an old team, but they’ve got several key players on the wrong side of 30, including Dan Boyle (39), Rick Nash (31), Dan Girardi (31), and, most importantly, Henrik Lundqvist (33). There’s also some cap pressure on the way, with Chris Kreider needing a new deal next year and Keith Yandle likely to depart as a free agent next summer.
There’s no sense of panic in New York, nor should there be. But a sense of urgency? Probably, yeah.
Key number: 2 — Consecutive years in which Rick Nash has led the league in shots taken during the postseason.1 The actual production hasn’t quite been there, although last year’s 14 points in 19 games was reasonable. And sure, he’s paid big bucks to score, so results matter. But when a guy is generating that many chances, it’s time to drop the “Nash disappears in the playoffs” narrative.
He tied Hossa with 69 shots in the 2014-15 postseason.
Watchability index: 7/10. Just don’t gaze too long into Lundqvist’s eyes. Uh, no reason.
Best case: While everyone’s waiting to anoint the Caps or Islanders as the Metro’s Next Big Thing, the Rangers just keep winning, all the way back to the final.
Worst case: The worst possible scenario is that Lundqvist starts to slow down; at 33, he’s reached the age when that typically happens to most goalies. He’s not most goalies, and some guys continue to excel for years into their mid- or even late thirties. But this guy is the franchise, and if he does start to falter, the Rangers’ short-term Cup chances will plummet.
Suggested slogan: Your 2014-15 Presidents’ Trophy champions! We think. Wait, didn’t the Ducks end up catching us? You know what, even we don’t care.
Bold prediction: The Rangers’ streak of Metro dominance ends thanks to a seven-game upset at the hands of the Islanders.
Last season: 43-27-12, 98 points, fourth in the Metro and 15th overall, lost in the first round.
Offseason report: They traded for Phil Kessel, a guy who was consistently near the top of the league in scoring in Toronto despite his no. 1 center being a canvas bag filled with sawdust and broken glass that someone had written “no. 1 center” on with spray paint. Now he’s going to play with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. That’s probably an upgrade.
Outlook: The knock on last year’s Penguins is that they were top-heavy but lacked depth. They responded to that criticism by shedding depth and getting even more top-heavy. And it just might work. Between the addition of Kessel and a return to health from Kris Letang, the Penguins have a very expensive core of skaters that might just be the best in the league.
The Pens are far from a sure thing, and more than one reader expressed surprise they didn’t make an appearance in yesterday’s post. Maybe they should have. But boy, they look like they’re going to be fun.
Key number: 52.8 percent — Pittsburgh’s score-adjusted even-strength Corsi last year. That’s actually an excellent mark, good for fifth-best in the league. Corsi isn’t everything, as you’d hope would go without saying by now, but Pittsburgh’s suggests it may have been a better team than the standings would indicate.
Watchability index: 10/10. The only thing more fun than a Penguins’ power play will be a Penguins’ 3-on-3 overtime shift.
Best case: The Penguins spend the whole year going Harlem Globetrotters on the league. Crosby wins the Art Ross. Kessel gets the Rocket Richard. Letang grabs the Norris. And then they roll into the playoffs as the East’s top seed. Really, what could go wrong?
Worst case: Oh, right. Granted, Marc-Andre Fleury doesn’t exactly have a sterling reputation for playoff success, and his regular-season numbers aren’t especially impressive either. But he’s coming off his best season as a full-time starter, and he was even better in the playoffs. If Pittsburgh’s skill players do what we expect them to, they don’t need Fleury to stand on his head. “Good enough” will be just fine, and Fleury can probably do “good enough.”
Bold prediction: Kessel scores more goals than the combined total of whichever three players make up Toronto’s top line.
Last season: 50-22-10, 110 points, first in the Atlantic and second overall, lost in the second round.
Offseason report: Pretty quiet. They swapped Brandon Prust for Younger Brandon Prust, and they re-signed Jeff Petry. They also rolled the dice on Alexander Semin on a one-year deal, which is the only kind of deal Semin should ever have.
Outlook: The Canadiens were very nearly the league’s best team last year, at least during the regular season. That made their second-round exit at the hands of the Lightning all the more disappointing; for long stretches of that series, Tampa Bay just looked like the better team. A quiet offseason didn’t result in any significant improvements, and while any team with a healthy Carey Price is going to be scary, there has to be at least a nagging doubt over whether the Habs are doing enough to take advantage of his prime.
Key number: 0 — Canadiens players who’ve posted a 70-point season in the last five years. Sure, goaltending and defense win championships, but so does elite talent up front, and with apologies to Max Pacioretty, the Canadiens haven’t had that in a long time.
Watchability index: 8/10. You know what? I’m tired of arguing with people who don’t appreciate P.K. Subban. I’m done. I have no more words for you people. So now, I’m just going to fight all of you. Please line up outside my house, take a number from the little machine I set up, and we’ll do this one at a time. (Please arrive early, as I will be unconscious seven seconds into the first bout.)
Best case: Price is almost as good as last year, Subban has another Norris-caliber year, new captain Pacioretty handles the pressure just fine, Semin chips in, and Alexander Galchenyuk finally looks like the team’s top-line center of the future. Montreal takes the division title again, and this time it’s ready for the Lightning in Round 2.
Worst case: A Price injury would be a disaster, but that’s true for most teams and their starting goalies. More realistically, if he regresses to just “very good,” the forwards aren’t likely to generate enough offense to keep the Habs from sliding out of the top of the standings.
Suggested slogan: Nobody mention that we haven’t been to a final during Alex Galchenyuk’s lifetime.
Bold prediction: Subban retires to wander the earth building orphanages and rescuing kittens from burning buildings; Bruins fans boo him the entire time.
Last season: 45-26-11, 101 points, second in the Metro and 10th overall, lost in the second round.
Offseason report: The Capitals added Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie but lost Mike Green, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward to free agency. On balance, that’s an improvement; Williams and Oshie more than make up for Fehr and Ward, and Green was playing on the third pairing many nights.
Outlook: After putting together a strong season followed by another playoff collapse, the Caps head into the season a dark-horse Cup favorite. Braden Holtby should be considered a top-tier goaltender after last year’s breakthrough, giving Washington an All-Star talent in the crease to match the ones up front. The blue line is a bit of a question mark, although John Carlson could be poised for a breakout season.
Key number: 25.3 percent — The Capitals’ power-play efficiency, the best in the league by 1.5 percentage points. That’s kind of a lot; the difference between Washington and second-place Detroit was bigger than the gap between seventh and 16th. And while special teams tend to fluctuate, Washington was tied for first in 2013-14 and alone in the top spot in 2012-13.
Watchability index: 8/10. Somebody should probably cover Ovechkin on the power play. Why is nobody covering Ovechkin on the power play? SOMEBODY SHOULD REALLY BE COVER— hey, nice goal.
Best case: The Caps are going to be this year’s trendy Stanley Cup pick, since pundits know we don’t get any credit for picking a team that’s already won or come very close. In Washington’s case, it’s not unwarranted, because all the pieces are there.
Worst case: For the other teams on this list, somehow missing the playoffs is the absolute worst case. For the Caps, it would be making the playoffs, taking a commanding series lead, and then blowing it. Again.
Suggested slogan: Wait, what do you mean playoff rounds haven’t been best-of-five since 1987?
Bold prediction: Chokers no more: The Capitals finally hit their postseason stride and capture the Metro crown. (Then choke in the conference final.)
Last season: 51-24-7, 109 points, first in the Pacific and third overall, lost in the conference finals.
Offseason report: The Ducks saw plenty of movement, although it’s hard to say whether it all added up to them being better or worse. They lost Francois Beauchemin but added Kevin Bieksa. They swapped Emerson Etem for Carl Hagelin, which is an upgrade, but also lost Matt Beleskey. Chris Stewart will replace him, kind of, and they also brought in Shawn Horcoff and Mike Santorelli, but they lost Tomas Fleischmann and Kyle Palmieri. Finally, they picked up Hurricanes backup Anton Khudobin, which could end up being important since he’s a sneaky good goalie who could push for a piece of the starter’s job.
They also signed Ryan Kesler to that extension, but we’ve probably beaten them up enough about that.
Outlook: The Ducks are clearly all in, with their three top forwards signed to massive contracts that can’t possibly keep delivering value through the rest of the decade. That’s a problem for down the road, though. Right now, the Ducks are set to make a serious run at winning it all. And with the Kings still a question mark and the Hawks potentially worn down, this might be the year it happens.
Key number: plus-10 — That’s the number that keeps coming up when you look at last year’s Ducks. It’s their goals differential, one that ranked 17th in the league and last among playoff teams, and suggests that their impressive record was largely based on a healthy dose of good luck. The Ducks were ridiculously good at winning one-goal games, and many insist that’s a skill. But history tells us it can fluctuate season to season, and if it does, we may find out the Ducks aren’t who we thought they were.
Watchability index: 8/10. There’s probably not a player in the league who’s more fun to hate than Corey Perry.
Best case: The Ducks repeat as Pacific Division champs, then face the Blackhawks in a rematch of last year’s Western Conference final. This time, they don’t let the champs off the mat, going on to win the franchise’s second Cup.
Worst case: The Kings show up at the top of the division, say “thanks for holding my spot while I was away,” and then face-shove the Ducks back into also-ran status. Anaheim fans spend the next few years looking back on 2014-15 as the one year the door was open and they couldn’t take advantage.
Suggested slogan: We were planning to sim through to 2018 and then reload an old saved game anyway.
Bold prediction: The Ducks’ record in one-goal games does indeed level out, and they don’t come close to last year’s 109 points. But they’re a force in the playoffs, winning the Pacific and then toppling the Central winner on their way to the franchise’s first final appearance since 2007.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Last season: 50-24-8, 108 points, second in the Atlantic and fifth overall, lost in the Stanley Cup final.
Offseason report: The Lightning didn’t change much. They didn’t need to. With the exception of Brenden Morrow, pretty much the entire team from last year’s run to the final is back.
The Lightning did lose young backup goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who’ll miss at least two months after surgery to remove a blood clot. And, of course, they’ve so far failed to extend Steven Stamkos, which is getting close to going from minor curiosity to full-blown thing.
Outlook: Last year, the Lightning went into the season as a trendy sleeper pick. This year, they’re the East’s alpha dog, the team everyone is expecting to run the table. It’s not hard to see why. They’ve got a perennial Hart candidate in Stamkos, a dominant second line that might actually be their first line in Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov, one of the league’s best defensemen in Victor Hedman (and one of the most underrated in Anton Stralman), and more than adequate goaltending from Ben Bishop. There are no holes here, and they’re young enough that they could get even better. No team is better set up to be very, very good for the next several years.
Key number: 59.2 percent — Scoring chances for the Lightning last year when Palat was on the ice. That’s the second-best percentage in the league among players with at least 800 minutes, trailing only Patrice Bergeron. Without Palat, the Lightning’s chances dropped to 51.6 percent.
Watchability index: 9/10. The forwards gets most of the attention, but take some time to focus on Hedman. He’s far faster and offensively skilled than you probably think.
Best case: Given how stacked the Lightning already are, here’s a scary thought: What happens if Jonathan Drouin finally breaks through? The former third overall pick had a disappointing rookie season, then spent most of the playoffs in the press box. He’s only 20 years old, so there’s plenty of time for him to reach his peak. And that peak could be dominant — he’s got an elite skill set and dominated the junior ranks. If they throw him on a line with Stamkos and those two click … look out.
Worst case: The Triplets can’t find last year’s magic, Drouin needs another season to figure out the NHL, Bishop has an off year, and the Lightning are merely good without ever quite hitting “great.” Meanwhile, the Stamkos contract drama drags on as it becomes increasingly evident that he’s wanted to test free agency all along, forcing GM Steve Yzerman to at least consider the idea of trading his franchise player at the deadline.
Suggested slogan: Hey Stamkos, can you sign an autograph for this adorable little kid? Awesome. Just ignore all the stuff at the top that says “contract extension.”
Bold prediction: Stamkos re-signs by Christmas, Hedman wins the Norris, and the Lightning return to the Stanley Cup final. This time, they finish the job. Tampa Bay over Anaheim in six.