SB Nation's comprehensive, beautiful, team-by-team preview of the 2013-14 NHL season.
Those images of Leafs fans gathered downtown for playoff games were captivating and all, but there will be no repeat this coming April. Questionable offseason moves, the addition of the Red Wings to their division, and the regression that never came during the shortened 2013 season will push the Leafs to an early tee time this spring, while the B’s, Sens, Wings and Habs battle it out in the playoffs.
* Projected order of finish determined by panel of SB Nation hockey writers
It was an offseason of change in Boston after the team’s second Stanley Cup Final appearance in three years, with Tyler Seguin, Nathan Horton and Andrew Ference among those leaving town. But the Bruins seem comfortable with their replacements. Zdeno Chara still anchors a deep, competitive blue line, Tuukka Rask remains the steady hand in goal and the addition of Jarome Iginla in free agency is nothing to sneeze at. The Bruins won’t score goals like Pittsburgh or Chicago, but they won’t allow many either. Another deep playoff run is certainly a possibility. — Travis Hughes
Defensive depth: The Bruins have three youngsters -- Torey Krug, Matt Bartkowski and the highly-touted Dougie Hamilton -- all pushing for the last two spots on the blueline, and several more high-end prospects in the system in Providence. Chara may be getting older, but the Bruins should be able to get a few more good years out of him, including this one. Dennis Seidenberg, Adam McQuaid and Johnny Boychuk round out the Bruins’ back end. None of these guys are liabilities -- McQuaid and Boychuk may be the weakest links, but weakness is relative; this squad hasn’t diminished at all from last year. Taking Andrew Ference out of the equation was inevitable with the rise of the young talent in the playoffs, and will give these three a much better opportunity to make a mark at the NHL level.
Goaltending: Although the backup spot is a question mark at this point in time, Rask should be able to shoulder the lion’s share of starts this season. He proved in 2009-10 and again last year that he is entirely competent as an NHL starter; if his numbers from previous years are any indication, he should be atop the league in GAA and save percentage yet again in 2013-14. It remains to be seen if he makes Finland’s Olympic roster, and if that happens we may see Niklas Svedberg or Chad Johnson spell him a bit heading into the second half of the season, but the Bruins should be all set in the net this year.
Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara: While these two were on the ice together last year, they allowed exactly one goal at even strength. Bergeron’s line may be minus the offensive punch that was Seguin, and Chara may be a year older, but add in defensively responsible Loui Eriksson and we may see a streak like that again this year.
The power play: Perennially an issue, this year looks to be no different. Unless we see Claude Julien suddenly decide that Krug and Bartkowski -- two of the best puck-movers in the system -- can handle the responsibility of the first power play unit, we’re going to see a lot of the same old pass-pass-pass-missed pass-regroup outside the zone nonsense that Bruins fans have been tearing their hair out over since Marc Savard went down.
The fourth line: Shawn Thornton may be a character guy, and Gregory Campbell may be a legend in Boston since the 2013 playoffs, but by the numbers the Bruins’ fourth line outside Daniel Paille is one of the weaker lines in the league. With so much talent in the system behind these guys, the Bruins would be better served using the fourth line to give a few of their youngsters a shot at the NHL.
Scoring depth: Behind the one-two punch of Krejci’s and Bergeron’s lines, there really isn’t much scoring depth on the Bruins as they are now. With the third line still undetermined, it remains to be seen if Carl Soderberg, Chris Kelly and whoever their third linemate is can dredge up some chemistry, correct Kelly’s outrageously low shooting percentage (he had just three goals and six assists last year), and get Soderberg completely adjusted to playing in the NHL.
Up front, Jarome Iginla and Loui Eriksson live up to their expectations. The third line of Carl Soderberg, Ryan Spooner and Chris Kelly dominates their competition. Jordan Caron gets traded for a third round pick in 2015. On the back end, Zdeno Chara stays healthy and stalwart, Krug ends up not being the 2013 playoffs flash in the pan we all fear he is, and Dougie Hamilton begins to show signs of becoming Boston’s future No. 1 defenseman. Overall, the Bruins allow the fewest goals in the league in front of Rask, who proves he can play 70+ games/year (including playoffs) without breaking down, and Niklas Svedberg proves he’s a very capable NHL backup. Julien lets Spooner and Krug loose on the power play, which finally ends the season ranked out of the bottom 10 in the league. The Bruins make another very strong push for the Stanley Cup.
We see a situation similar to 2009-10, where scoring is a massive struggle. The third line remains in flux all season. Iginla doesn’t click with Milan Lucic and David Krejci, and that line’s production falters. Chara begins to show signs of age. Rask breaks down after about 65 games, putting Boston’s goaltending for the future in question. The Bruins still make the playoffs, but get ousted rather quickly.
For the first time since 1996, the Sabres enter an NHL regular season without Lindy Ruff behind their bench, and the outlook for Ron Rolston’s first full season as head coach isn’t pretty. We’re not just talking about their atrocious third jerseys, either. The Sabres are very clearly in rebuild mode, and most fans are looking forward to the trade deadline and what the team will get in return for pending free agents Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller rather than anything that’ll actually happen on the ice. — Travis Hughes
Defensive depth: For the second year in a row, the Sabres have around nine NHL-caliber defensemen fighting for their top six and a bench job. It’s a good problem to have for any team, and they have a good mix of both established talent -- Christian Ehrhoff, Henrik Tallinder -- and very promising youngsters, as rookies Mark Pysyk and Rasmus Ristolainen have looked phenomenal this preseason. The success of this group will depend largely on whether or not Tyler Myers can regain the future-Norris candidate form he showed as a rookie, If he continues to struggle, however, there will be a large hole along Buffalo’s blue line.
Consistency in goal: Ryan Miller may no longer be among the league leaders in save percentage or goals against, but he remains one of the most consistent goaltenders of the past half decade. His even strength save percentage has stayed between .922 and .928 for the last five seasons. When he won the Vezina in 2010, it was thanks to an incredible power play save percentage of .919, and the Sabres on the whole should be better there this season.
Meanwhile, Jhonas Enroth has quietly turned in to the reliable backup that the Sabres have been looking for since losing Marty Biron way back in 2006. Should Miller get injured or traded, Enroth should be capable of handling the load in the interim. His status as a long-term everyday tender is still in question, but Ron Rolston has shown more trust in him than Lindy Ruff ever did, and Enroth repaid that trust with a very solid 2013 campaign.
Size married to skill: The Buffalo Sabres, who shocked the NHL coming out of the 2004 lockout, were built around small, quick players who used the reinforced rulebook to their advantage en route to a surprise playoff run. Over the past few years, however, the Sabres have placed a heavy emphasis on drafting and recruiting big players who still flash a good amount of skill. In 2013, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov were both selected by Buffalo, two talented first rounders who both tower above 6’4. This preseason, the Sabres haven’t dressed anyone under 6’1 on defense. The players are already talking about the brotherhood they share in the locker room, and the donnybrook they had against the Maple Leafs on Sept. 22 proves that this is not a team to be trifled with physically.
Scoring Depth: The Sabres actually have the strongest top-to-bottom forward depth this season that they’ve had in years. The issue however, is that almost all of their forwards are dependable two-way players, and few of them have any kind of offensive upside. Those that do are either young like Mikhail Grigorenko, unproven as a top guy (Cody Hodgson or Tyler Ennis) or are likely to be traded mid-season (Thomas Vanek). Throw in Drew Stafford, and there are only four guys with a serious shot to crack 20 goals this season. Of course, others might surprise us, but the other eight forwards expected to start are your classic “hard working, 200-foot game” kind of guys. Unless some of those other guys like Steve Ott, Marcus Foligno or Ville Leino can score more than expected, the Sabres will be looking to win a lot of low-scoring games.
Inexperience: With the number of young players and NHL rookies that will likely have starting spots on Buffalo’s roster, there will certainly be games where a missed assignment, bad penalty, or miscommunication will come back to bite them. But the inexperience behind Buffalo’s bench cannot be overlooked. Ron Rolston did yeoman’s work with an organization in transition when he took over for Lindy Ruff last season, going 15-11-5 with the interim tag. But now in a full season, Rolston will be scrutinized more closely than ever before. While he did keep some veteran coaches from the Ruff era (most notably goalie coach Jim Corsi, the namesake of the Corsi stat), the assistants he brought on are just as inexperienced behind the NHL bench than Rolston, if not more so. He and his staff will have their work cut out for them this season with the youth on Buffalo’s roster.
Leadership: The Sabres traded away captain Jason Pominville last season and declined to let anyone fill the role. Thomas Vanek and Steve Ott are two candidates to take over, but each will see their contract expire at the end of the season. Captaincy aside, multiple players revealed at the end of last season that there was a lack of accountability within the team’s locker room. Combine that with a young roster and an experienced coaching staff, and it could lead to disaster this season should nobody step up to fill the void.
The Sabres need about a dozen “ifs” to all work out brilliantly in order to compete in the East this season. First and foremost, Tyler Myers must return to his Calder Trophy winning days, while the rest of the young defense must gel quickly. In a perfect world, Jhonas Enroth proves himself a capable backup behind Ryan Miller, who regains his Vezina form in another Olympic year and steals a few games every month. The young crop of forwards score just enough to squeak out a whole bunch of 2-1 wins, and the team’s 25-and-under core (which could end up including as many as 10 starters) shows consistent improvement under the tutelage of Ron Rolston. Buffalo shocks the world and squeaks into the playoffs with the seventh or eighth seed.
The Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek trade saga dominates the discussion all season, but GM Darcy Regier keeps both of them in a vain attempt to make a run for the playoffs, and Buffalo fans go through the summer of 2007 (losing Chris Drury and Danny Briere for nothing) all over again. The team is inconsistent thanks to its youth and lack of scoring punch, and limps its way through another up-and-down season that deepens the rift that began growing between the organization and its fans last year. In the final home game, the Sabres lose in a shootout to miss the playoffs and clinch the ninth spot, thus ensuring their rebuilding efforts are hindered by a draft pick in the mid-teens. Buffalo fans spend all spring and summer burning effigies of Regier outside the arena, then renew their season tickets at a 98 percent rate.
That sound you hear? It’s the teeth-chattering of the rest of the Eastern Conference, now plagued with the perennially Cup-contending Red Wings among their ranks. Detroit heads East to the new Atlantic Division, where they hope they’ll find easier competition than they did in the old Central Division. The Wings are aging and weaker than usual on defense, but it’s hard to look at their roster and think they’re anything but a contender in the Atlantic and the East. — Travis Hughes
Two-way forwards: The Red Wings’ system is built around the concept of having a team dangerous in creating transition, which starts from an aggressive backcheck. From the top-skill guys in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg down the lineup, there aren’t offense-only passengers on the ice under Mike Babcock. This takes the pressure off a relatively young defensive corps which enters its second season since the retirement of the great Nicklas Lidstrom.
Led at the top by Selke-caliber forwards Datsyuk and Zetterberg, the Wings’ forward corps is bolstered by defensively-responsible wingers who can also score goals, players like Johan Franzen, Daniel Cleary and Justin Abdelkader will get minutes in those roles while even the young offensively talented prospects like Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar were groomed to skate hard both ways down the ice.
Top-level goaltending: Detroit doesn’t have a power tandem in goal, but its starter is top-notch. Jimmy Howard’s performance in the 2012-13 season earned him a new big-money six-year contract. Howard will be expected to continue to compete for the title of the Wings’ most valuable player; not an easy feat considering his competition. Jonas Gustavsson will be coming off an injury-plagued season and continue trying to prove himself at the NHL level. If not, the Wings have a promising prospect in Petr Mrazek waiting in Grand Rapids for his chance to shine.
Coaching and leadership: Mike Babcock is one of the smartest coaches in the game, both in the head-to-head mind games he plays with opposing coaches and in how he gets his players to perform. The entire Red Wings’ organization from GM Ken Holland at the top down to the coaching at the AHL level and the scouting department is focused on finding and developing players who fit into the Red Wings way, a way which has driven the Red Wings to more than two-decades’ worth of consecutive playoff appearances. On-ice and in the locker room, the core leadership group of players like Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall do much of the talking to their teammates to make sure everybody is on the same page.
Established defensive depth: Detroit had one of the better defenses in the league last season and learned a lot of positives from a rash of injuries, but they still lack two true top-pairing defensemen and now find themselves with one of the less-experienced blueline corps. Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson are capable defenders who can hold their own against top-line NHL competition, but they’re not the true minute-munchers Detroit used to have. The middle pair of Kyle Quincey and Brendan Smith are still working to improve while the third pair of Jakub Kindl and Danny DeKeyser looks very promising for the future, but one injury brings in still relatively-inexperienced Brian Lashoff (who has more NHL games played than DeKeyser) into the lineup. More than one injury means call-ups from a promising-but-not-yet-ready group of AHL defenders.
Overall team age: While the defense corps is relatively young and inexperienced, the forwards have a lot of players over age 30 with various injury histories. Mikael Samuelsson missed a large portion of the 2012-13 season with a range of ailments while the 38-year old Todd Bertuzzi struggles with chronic back issues. The team just brought back the 34-year-old Dan Cleary, who has struggled with knee issues for the last few seasons, and even their top two offensive threats are subject to the threat of missing time with injury. Throw in the 40-year-old Daniel Alfredsson, and you’ve got a team that’s expected to be a bit more prone to injuries than average.
Team size: Detroit’s puck-possession style doesn’t call for a lot of the banging and crashing that bigger teams engage in, but when it comes time to playing that type of game, the Wings don’t have many pieces that can effectively neutralize a size disadvantage. They have some bigger forwards like Franzen, Bertuzzi and Samuelsson, as well as some more-physical yet merely average-sized players like Abdelkader and Cleary. They also have a handful of defensemen 6’3 or above, but of those, some haven’t finished growing into their frames (DeKeyser) and others (Kindl) aren’t well known for effectively leveraging that kind of size in the “dirty areas” of the ice. The Wings are built to minimize this disadvantage through strong neutral zone play, but it doesn’t always work out like that.
The team stays healthy while goaltending lives up to expectations and the defensive corps’ younger defensemen continue to improve. The two young scoring forwards, Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar, are able to take advantage of the weaker competition against other teams’ lower lines while the Wings’ top two lines consistently either outscore or neutralize their top-level opponents. In the rest of the division, Boston finds trouble with its forward depth while Ottawa regresses in several key areas. Tampa Bay continues to struggle to prevent goals and the Canadiens can’t consistently keep it together. This turns an already competitive Red Wings team into a top-tier contender by the time the playoffs arrive.
Age, injuries, and inconsistency pile up. The young defense struggles with its assignments, which puts extra pressure on goaltending and the offense to keep the Wings in games. The injury bug turns a balanced scoring attack into a one-dimensional counterattacking shell. The Wings struggle with the physical style of the East and find themselves falling behind early against teams who are all too happy to play a wide-open style. Pure skill drags them through the toughest times of the season, but by the trade deadline, the Wings find themselves a bubble team and have to make some hard decisions about how to approach the final stretch run of the season. Detroit’s run of consecutive playoff appearances ends in ignominious fashion.
Nobody is kidding themselves into thinking the Panthers are a playoff contender in 2013-14. Two years removed from pushing eventual Eastern champ New Jersey to a Game 7, the Panthers are distinctly in rebuild mode, and they’ll likely ice a roster with nine players under the age of 22. The future seems bright in South Florida, but in 2013-14, the only competition the Cats will see will comes in their own crease between a resurrected Tim Thomas and goalie of the future Jacob Markstrom. — Travis Hughes
Youth: Any potential roster – NHL or otherwise – boasting the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau, Drew Shore, Nick Bjugstad, Vincent Trocheck, Quinton Howden, Erik Gudbranson, Markstrom and Sasha Barkov is one which demands at least a modicum of respect from around the hockey universe. All have had a wealth of personal or team-based success in their early endeavours. Further, the talent doesn’t stop there heading into 2013-14: Colby Robak has a legit chance to make an immediate mark on D, as does Alex Petrovic on first-call-up duty in San Antonio, while goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris has shown flashes of positive consistency with the AHL Rampage. And we’re only discussing the current season.
An improved penalty kill: We’re in “what if” territory here, so what if the Panthers actually increased their league-low PK percentage? Why might such a turnaround happen? Health comes into play. Early in 2013, Marcel Goc, Mike Weaver, Ed Jovanovski and Stephen Weiss all found considerable time on the IR. Each was a valuable member of the penalty kill; it suffered in their absence, and the organization’s prospects in San Antonio – not all of whom had the experience to fulfill such duty – became interchangeable on an devolving PK. Weiss is gone, but barring another injury armageddon this should be an improved area.
Can’t get any worse, right?: Florida finished the truncated ’13 schedule at or near the bottom of multiple statistical categories, including Goals For (30th), Goals Against (30th), winning percentage when outshot (28th), PK “effectiveness” (30th) and plus-minus (30th). There’s more to the ugliness but the point is obvious: It was a dreadful campaign dogged by just about everything. It’s for that reason the Cats can improve, if only statistically. A healthy start, a maturing roster in San Antonio to serve in a depth role, and a couple of planets aligning, could do wonders for this underrated corps. Hope springs eternal, as a mix of talented youngsters, reclamation projects and nearing-the-end veterans may be just what is needed to turn the corner. Honestly, we’re at the mid-point of Dale Tallon’s rebuild, for all the good and bad that may include. And hey … Scott Gomez!
Health: The Panthers had a plethora of issues last season, but first and foremost among them were injury woes, which ended the club’s Southeast Division title defense before it even started. At times, the club was so thin it would have had trouble beating some of the better teams in the AHL. Prized prospect Nick Bjugstad has already missed exhibition games due to a head injury he received during a prospects tournament game and backup goaltender Scott Clemmensen had to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery before the start of training camp. Veterans Kris Versteeg, Sean Bergenheim and Jovanovski are all trying to overcome respective procedures from last season to make the opening-night roster. Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau is coming off summer hip surgery. The Panthers seem to be cursed when it comes to injuries, and storm clouds are already starting to gather, with the potential to rain down another season of misery in Sunrise.
Power play: Florida ended up tied with four other teams for the NHL’s 13th-best power play, which wasn’t bad considering all the injury problems. Unfortunately, a middle of the pack ranking is not effective enough due to the club’s lack of 5-on-5 scoring. In addition to scoring more goals when they have the man advantage, the Panthers need to work harder to draw penalties. They finished a disappointing 26th in that department.
Goaltending: The Panthers decided not to re-sign UFA Jose Theodore, who led the team to a surprising playoff berth in 2011-12, and seemed intent on leaving the starting job to talented but still green prospect Jacob Markstrom, with veteran Clemmensen providing backup. When Clemmensen had to go under the knife, leaving his status for the start of the season under question, Florida moved quickly and brought in Conn Smythe and two-time Vezina winner Tim Thomas on a PTO. It seems a given that Thomas will receive significant playing time.
Whether it’s Thomas or Markstrom who winds up as Florida’s number one netminder, there are some question marks. Thomas is 39-years-old and has not played in an NHL game in 17 months, while Markstrom has a grand total of 31 games of NHL experience and a career record of 10-19-2. At least one of them will need to excel while the other provides solid support if the Panthers are going to even sniff a playoff berth. Without Thomas, a Markstrom/Clemmensen pairing is even more worrisome.
Everyone in the Atlantic Division will take Florida for granted as the stereotype sad-sack loser organization with an empty BB&T Center, $20 parking, and players with zero pride in a country club atmosphere. Such a case of sneaking up on opponents likely won’t result in a postseason spot, but the Cats could surprise a few sleeping giants among the Red Wings, Bruins, et al here and there. It’s probably a long year, but watching the progression of burgeoning No. 1 center Shawn Matthias and so many others should be mightily entertaining. There could be another Calder Trophy winner for the club if Barkov’s shoulder holds up. Markstrom and Thomas play the 1 and 1A roles to perfection, prospects play beyond expectation, and a tightening of the special teams -- even on the order of a single goal per game -- could make waves in the new division.
The injury bug again runs rampant, Thomas doesn’t have it anymore and Markstrom is not ready to be a No. 1 starter, while the team’s moribund offense continues to struggle to light the lamp. The Panthers had enough trouble competing in the somewhat comfy confines of the Southeast over the years, and the move to the newly formed Atlantic puts them in a division stacked with five playoff teams from last season. A lot needs to go right for the Cats to even be competitive, so if the club’s fragile depth is tested by injuries and the goaltending is not good enough to steal games, then an ugly 82-game repeat of last season’s 48-game campaign of horror could be in the cards. That would mean a third lottery pick finish in GM Dale Tallon’s four years of duty, calling into serious question whether he can ever come close to accomplishing in Florida what he did in Chicago.
Not much has changed in Montreal as the Habs prepare to embark on their second year with Marc Bergevin and Michel Therrien at the helm. After a return to contention a year ago, the Canadiens are hoping to build beyond a disappointing first round exit that ended last season. Montreal could have the most potent offense in the East, but questions surround goalie Carey Price, who’s looking for redemption, and a defense that isn’t very deep beyond Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov. — Travis Hughes
Scoring Depth: The Canadiens had eight players hit double-figures scoring totals in the lockout shortened 2013 season, with Alex Galchenyuk and Lars Eller missing by one and two goals, respectively. The Habs boast three scoring lines at forward and two elite offensive defensemen on the backend, which makes them one of the NHL’s offensive powerhouses.
Powerplay: Speaking of those two elite offensive defensemen, one of them is Andrei Markov, who may be the best power-play quarterback in the NHL since the 2004-05 lockout. Markov’s hockey sense combined with P.K. Subban’s one-timer should make for an elite powerplay even if the forwards struggle a bit. To make matters worse for opponents, the Canadiens were the best team in the league last year at drawing penalties.
Speed: The Canadiens are often criticized for being a small team, but what’s overlooked in that is that they’re one of the faster teams in the league. Not just in skating speed, but in transition. Montreal uses its speed to gain the puck, gain the zone and keep opponents hemmed in. This speed allows Montreal to play an up tempo, puck possession game that frustrates opponents and excites fans.
Defensive Depth: Even if Alexei Emelin wasn’t injured, Montreal would still be a little weak on their second pairing. Markov is an elite point producer, but his defensive game is eroding, and P.K. Subban can’t play 60 minutes. The Habs enter the season with just three legitimate top-four defensemen, and although their two best available prospects are on defense, the coaching staff seems to prefer underwhelming veterans like Francis Bouillon and Douglas Murray.
Penalty Kill: Though the Canadiens had an elite level penalty kill in the past and still feature a roster of excellent short-handed players, they were hands down awful there last year, mostly due to poor player usage and an outdated system employed by asssistant coach J.J. Daigneault. If Subban is still left off of the ice in shorthanded situations, expect this to be a huge weakness once again in 2013-14.
Discipline: Head coach Michel Therrien was lauded for his calm demeanor for most of last season, a trait that had never been present before in the fiery coach. Unfortunately though, that discipline didn’t apply to the team he coached, and in the playoffs he lost his composure completely after a series of clever, if infuriating, comments from Senators coach Paul MacLean. In order to compete this season, Montreal will have to improve its discipline and be short-handed far less often.
After a subpar season, Carey Price rebounds into expected form and puts up a save percentage among the league’s elite. Both Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, and Eller is finally given the ice time he deserves as the second line center. If everything else holds steady as it was from last year, the Canadiens are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, and one of the top teams in their division.
Carey Price doesn’t rebound from last season, and the lack of top end defensive depth catches up with the team to have them bleed goals against. This team is deep enough that even with these problems they would still be in the hunt for the playoffs, unless of course the injury bug strikes. Losing one of Subban or Markov would likely put the Canadiens on the outside looking in.
For the first time in 17 years, the Senators will enter competition without Daniel Alfredsson on the lineup card. With Ottawa’s long-time captain heading to their new division rival, the Detroit Red Wings, the Sens will have plenty of opportunity to see their old friend. Newly appointed captain Jason Spezza hopes to develop chemistry with Bobby Ryan, who was acquired hours after Alfredsson’s departure, while Erik Karlsson looks to fully rebound from a lacerated Achilles tendon. Alfie said his decision to go to Detroit was motivated by the Red Wings chances to win a Cup, and the revamped Sens hope to prove him wrong. — Matt Brigidi
Goaltending: At one point last season, the Senators had three goalies in the top 10 statistically. A trade of Ben Bishop left the team with just two -- their best two. Starter Craig Anderson led the league with stats worthy of the Vezina Trophy, but missed 18 games due to a high ankle sprain. Backup Robin Lehner is only lacking in experience, and could already be talented enough to start for some teams in the league. They should provide a one-two punch with little appreciable dropoff from starter to backup.
Coaching: Head coach Paul MacLean has been nominated for the Jack Adams Award as the league’s best coach every year he’s been a head coach. It’s not coincidence. He’s exactly the right fit for the team. His superb communication skills allow him to speak with veterans in a way that earns their respect and speak to young players clearly about expectations. The end result is that it looks like MacLean always knows the right buttons to push to get the most out of his players. It doesn’t end there -- MacLean’s strong ability to communicate also has coach Luke Richardson of the AHL’s Binghamton Senators playing the same system, dramatically shortening the learning curve for prospects when called up. MacLean and his staff allow the Senators to play above their heads.
Offense: Counterintuitively, Ottawa’s offense is led by a defenseman. Karlsson was the best offensive blueliner in the league before his injury and shows no evidence of long-term damage. Outside of him is the team’s new captain, Jason Spezza, who was fourth in league scoring in 2011-12, and newly-acquired winger Bobby Ryan, a four-time 30-goal scorer who’s excited to be getting top minutes with the Sens. Milan Michalek and Clarke MacArthur should offer strong secondary scoring, while youngsters Kyle Turris, Mika Zibanejad, Cory Conacher and Patrick Wiercioch round out Ottawa’s high-octane offense. A first line of Ryan, Spezza and Michalek might make the Sens look rather top-heavy, but there remain good scoring threats outside of that trio.
Experience: During the offseason, Ottawa lost their long-time captain and franchise player Daniel Alfredsson, whose departure leaves the team looking very green. But on top of that, the team also lost Sergei Gonchar -- he of 1,177 NHL games played -- who had been a leader on the ice and in the dressing room, as well. Taking their places will be 26-year-old Ryan and 23-year-old Patrick Wiercioch, respectively. This group is a very young (if promising) collection of players, but the fact that many of them will be learning on the fly this year will be a huge challenge.
Defense: Ottawa’s blue line is going to put a lot of pressure on some very young players, and that could go one of two ways. Although Karlsson (23 years old) is a proven top defender for the team, the second pairing is likely going to consist of Jared Cowen (22 years old) and Wiercioch, who have a combined 140 games of NHL experience. If they falter, the Sens would have to give more minutes to a rapidly-declining Chris Phillips or a defensively unpredictable Joe Corvo, which isn’t an ideal solution. The seventh defender won’t offer an experience boost: It will be either 25-year-old sophomore Erik Gryba, who played 33 games last year, or 24-year-old Mark Borowiecki, who’s played eight NHL games. So if Cowen or Wiercioch (or both) can’t handle the added responsibilities, Ottawa might be left in the lurch, and the team’s internal budget won’t leave much room for midseason acquisitions.
Secondary scoring: Outside of the current top line of Ryan, Spezza and Michalek, Ottawa’s offensive prowess among forwards is unproven. If players like Turris and MacArthur can’t work with the younger players on this roster to generate enough secondary scoring, the opposition’s top shutdown players will be able to safely focus in on that top line and create problems similar to those faced by the 2009-10 Senators team. The good news is that MacLean has numerous options in order to provide secondary scoring, but the team will be in trouble if none of them work.
Buoyed by steady goaltending and offense, the Senators emerge as a true power in the Eastern Conference, capable of going toe-to-toe with teams like the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. Erik Karlsson returns to form, giving the Senators a dynamic look that few teams can match. MacLean continues to push all the right buttons, getting the most out of new additions like Ryan, MacArthur and Corvo. Zibanejad emerges as a strong third-line center, giving the team the confidence to play any line against any opponent’s line.
Youngsters like Cowen, Wiercioch, Lehner, Zibanejad and Conacher cannot handle the increased responsibility, reducing the Senators to a one-line team totally reliant on big nights from a likely-to-statistically-regress Anderson to win games. Karlsson has lost that top gear, creating havoc in the neutral zone and turnovers thanks to poor timing all year. MacLean runs out of magic as the Senators are unable to sneak up on opponents this year and a team that is healthier and better on paper than last year’s misses the playoffs.
The Steve Yzerman era in Tampa Bay has been up and down, to say the least. From a trip to the Conference Finals with one of the most explosive offensive teams in hockey, to a 14th place finish in the East, a coaching change and a buy out for Vincent Lecavalier, the face of the franchise. That’s all come in just three years. Now, the Bolts hope to reset in their first full year under coach Jon Cooper, who brings a much different style to the ice than his predecessor, Guy Boucher. — Travis Hughes
Offensive Prowess: Tampa Bay may have been at the bottom of the standings at the end of the lockout-shortened 2013 NHL season, but one thing is for sure: lack of offensive output wasn’t the reason for it. Tampa Bay managed to score 3.06 goals per game on average last season (3rd in the NHL). The Bolts power play had a respectable 19 percent conversion rate, good for 13th in the league.
The tandem of center Steven Stamkos and right wing Martin St. Louis has been one of the most potent in the league since 2009-2010 (287 goals, 380 assists between them). And while there’s a chance overall team production declines with the loss of veteran center Vincent Lecavalier, there’s enough potential on the roster to make up for the loss.
Quality system depth: While GM Steve Yzerman’s teams haven’t dazzled at the NHL level the past few seasons, he hasn’t been sitting around and twiddling his thumbs over that span. His focus has been on player development and the overall system, amassing a stockpile of talented players, and which has led to Tampa Bay’s system being highly ranked by a number of publications.
The system, nicknamed “Tampacuse” by fans last season (a mashup of Tampa and Syracuse, where the Lightning’s AHL affiliate resides), is starting to pay off and produce capable NHL starters who can step in and contribute in place of injured players or departed free agents. The talent pool raises the compete level for roster spots, and raises the overall competitive level of the team at the same time.
Coaching: Cooper enters his first full NHL season with a resume of championships at three different lower levels (the NAHL, the USHL and the AHL). He’s known as a motivator and a player’s coach. He’s assisted by NHL veteran coach Rick Bowness and former University of Denver hockey coach George Gwozdecky.
With a team that is starting to be filled out with younger talent – most of whom he coached with the Lightning’s AHL affiliates in the recent past – Cooper and company’s job is to get veterans to buy into the more hard-nosed and responsible version of play that his prior teams have had much success with.
Goaltending: Since 2010-11, no Lightning goaltender who started the season in Tampa Bay has posted a GAA lower than 2.85 or a save percentage above .902. Those two numbers were posted last season by Anders Lindback in what was widely regarded as a disappointing first season in Tampa.
Between Lindback and Ben Bishop, the Bolts tandem entering this season have played a total of 117 NHL games combined. That inexperience and a poor record of goalie performance under goalie coach Frantz Jean (the coach of record since 2010-11) must be overcome.
Defensive issues: For all the firepower the Lightning offense showed last season, there was one thing that they couldn’t do: maintain a lead. The Bolts were 5-12-4 in one-goal games and 3-11 in two-goal games, which led to killing their season (an atrocious .222 winning percentage in those two situations – 35 total games).
While goaltending has been suspect, poor puck possession and the inability to clear their own zone didn’t do them any favors, either. Bowness is charged with revamping the efforts on the Bolts blueline and will be working with a group of aging veterans and young guys at the same time.
Realignment: While the overall schedule this season didn’t hurt the Lightning as much as it could have, the fact remains that the Bolts need to adjust to a much more competitive division than they experienced in years past. The pushover Southeast Division is no more, while the Atlantic, aka the “Flortheast” is intimidating.
If the Bolts are to find their way back into the playoffs in 2013-14, they’ll have to go through a brick wall and overcome Boston, Ottawa, Detroit, Montreal and Toronto in the process, which could be quite a challenge for a team in transition.
One of the two (or both) young goaltenders finally “breaks out,” giving the Lightning consistent league-average or better goaltending for a full season. Cooper’s system improves puck possession and breakout issues which have plagued the Lightning the past two years, and Valtteri Filppula helps the Lightning match-up better against other team’s top two lines. Radko Gudas steps into the top four on the blueline, and Bowness fixes the defensive group in general, bringing Tampa Bay out of the cellar in goals against as Matt Carle and Eric Brewer have bounce-back seasons. Elite scorers St. Louis and Stamkos are complemented by veteran forwards Teddy Purcell and Ryan Malone, who stay healthy and productive, and are bolstered by some secondary scoring from rookie forwards like Jonathan Drouin, Brett Connolly and Richard Panik, making the Bolts competitive in their first year in the Atlantic Division.
Anders Lindback and Ben Bishop don’t improve, or worse, actually regress, keeping the Bolts near the bottom of the league in save percentage. Brewer and Sami Salo get routinely victimized and the Lightning remain near the bottom of the league in goals against, rendering terrific offensive seasons from Stamkos and St. Louis meaningless as the Bolts get manhandled by their division and manage their third straight season outside the Top eight in the Eastern Conference. Malone plays fewer than 70 games again, and the rookies called up from Syracuse struggle with prolonged exposure to tough NHL competition. The rebuild continues as Yzerman gets yet another top-10 pick after a season of growing pains and fans in Tampa are forced to wait another year for this team’s big breakout.
Playoff hockey returned to Toronto in 2013 for the first time in nearly a decade, but after a crushing (to say the least) defeat in Game 7 of the first round against Boston, and a few questionable offseason moves by general manager Dave Nonis, there’s no guarantee that it happens again. David Clarkson was a high-priced free agent addition, and the decision to let go Mikhail Grabovski via buyout left many scratching their heads. Are the Leafs a playoff team in an Atlantic Division that’s a whole lot tougher than a year ago? — Travis Hughes
Goaltending: The Toronto Maple Leafs, in between lockouts, were more often than not left to lament their weakness in net. In the latter half of 2010-11, the team’s prayers for competent goaltending were finally answered with the emergence of the quiet yet effective James Reimer. His 2011-12 season was derailed by a concussion courtesy of Montreal’s Brian Gionta, but he returned to his early NHL form last season with a save percentage of .924, backstopping a Maple Leafs team that was frequently overrun.
The Leafs didn’t want to rest on their laurels and sought to upgrade the overall skill at the position by packaging backup Ben Scrivens and right-winger Matt Frattin along with a second round draft pick in 2014 to Los Angeles for the frustrated Jonathan Bernier. While Bernier may currently represent only potential than proven ability, he will hopefully represent at least an upgrade on Scrivens. The short track record in the NHL -- 62 games played -- hasn’t deterred the team from suggesting that he will be given the starter’s role at least at the outset of the season. Whether he picks up the gauntlet and runs with it is another matter, but in Reimer they have a goalie that has put together two great half seasons in the Toronto pressure cooker. Odds are that the Leafs won’t be recalling the days of Vesa Toskala or Jonas Gustavsson anytime soon.
Top six wingers: While the general approach to building a potent offense is to ensure strength down the middle, the Leafs have, as with so many other maxims, eschewed traditional thinking. The Leafs return their star Phil Kessel who is fresh off of finishing seventh and sixth in league scoring over the past two seasons, respectively, as well as his running mate Joffrey Lupul, who had enjoyed a career renaissance in Toronto in 2011-12 before being derailed by injuries last season. The Leafs welcomed James van Riemsdyk from Philadelphia, who scored 18 goals in the shortened season, and this summer the buds signed prized free agent David Clarkson, who potted 15 goals after scoring 30 in 2011-12. His suspension for the first 10 games of the regular season will hurt but it will give former 30 goal scorer Nikolai Kulemin and former 25 goal scorer Mason Raymond a chance to recapture their offensive sparks.
Penalty kill: The Maple Leafs’ special teams were more often than not an Achilles heel during the inter-lockout period, but that changed last year as the Maple Leafs had the second best penalty kill in the NHL. The presence of Reimer was a big factor but the biggest change was the addition of defensive specialist Jay McClement. McClement logged 70 percent more minutes on the penalty kill than the team’s next most used forward, Kulemin, and is joined by returnees Mark Fraser, Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson and Tyler Bozak, who made up the bulk of the highly effective unit. Leo Komarov’s loss will be felt most acutely here but the additions of David Bolland and Mason Raymond will hopefully work to offset his loss and free Bozak from his defensive responsibilities.
Center: As mentioned, the Leafs are light in offensive talent down the middle. They parted ways with their most complete centreman in Mikhail Grabovski after a down season precipitated by a serious gastrointestinal issue, not to mention gross misuse by Randy Carlyle. They have doubled down on Bozak with a long-term contract. Nazem Kadri had a breakout season with 44 points in 48 games and will be counted to continue his offensive development after signing a two-year bridge contract after the expiry of his entry-level contract.
Bolland and McClement provide a stiff defensive spine, however the unit as a whole is undersized and lacks an established and recognized top line centre as Bozak is a placeholder while Kadri’s development continues. If injuries strike then the Leafs will be in a lot of trouble as next on the depth chart is 2008 first rounder Joe Colborne, who has yet to establish himself as an NHLer.
Defense: While the Leafs do not lack for NHL quality defensemen, they could do with more top four defensive talent. Captain Dion Phaneuf will continue to face the opposition’s best players and will hopefully be flanked by Carl Gunnarsson rather than the AHL-quality defensemen he was saddled with last year in Mike Kostka and Korbinian Holzer. This pairing may not have the cachet of the elite top pairings around the NHL but they can get the job done.
The second pairing will feature the feel good comeback story of Paul Ranger who will be looking to recover his 2008-09 form for his boyhood team after three years out of the NHL. He did well last year with the Toronto Marlies and will hopefully be paired with the Leafs’ exciting offensive talent Jake Gardiner as long as he and his outspoken agent can stay out of Carlyle’s doghouse. It is a gamble to count on Ranger stepping back into the fold without missing a beat but he has had a strong training camp and preseason.
The Leafs' 2012 first round pick Morgan Rielly will get a chance to remain with the Leafs for at least a little while longer after making the final cuts at camp. From GM David Nonis' public comments there is a chance that he may spend the entire year with the team although not necessarily playing all of the games. Cody Franson was welcomed back after signing a one-year contract and he will probably be reunited with his running mate from last year in Mark Fraser. Franson's contract and Rielly's impressive training camp precipitated the demotion of John-Michael Liles, he of the poorly conceived four year contract (only three years left!), to the Marlies as the Leafs found that there wasn't much of a market for his services.
Depth: Despite never making the playoffs in between the previous two lockouts, the Leafs failed to accumulate the level of high-end prospect depth that would be expected. If the team struggles with injuries, they will rely on mid-level prospects to fill the gap. Any time missed by the team’s top six forwards or top four defencemen will have an outsized impact on the Leafs. Players like Jerry D’Amigo, Carter Ashton, Andrew MacWilliam and others on the Marlies may one day help the team fill out the bottom half of their roster, but they won’t be nearly enough to overcome any extended absences amongst the team’s most valuable players.
The Leafs are in tough with the addition of the Detroit Red Wings to their division, as well as the new playoff format. The best case scenario may already have been torpedoed by David Clarkson’s 10 game suspension, but if Reimer and Bernier can match the goaltending that the Leafs received last year, the team’s wingers are healthy, Kadri doesn’t take a step back and the defense comes together, then the Leafs will be capable of sneaking into the playoffs. Assuming that the Red Wings and Bruins will be assured of the top two positions then the Leafs will be battling the Canadiens, Senators, and possibly one of the Lightning or Panthers -- depending on which one is having their own best case scenario season -- for the last automatic playoff spot. The possibility of a crossover playoff position adds a wrinkle, so finishing 4th or 5th may not be a death sentence for the playoff hopes, but it is a stretch to see how some national commentators can have the Leafs pencilled in as a playoff certainty.
Dave Nonis spent the summer refashioning this team to conform more closely to Randy Carlyle’s ideal, however there are still a number of questions that could see the team take a step backward, out of the playoffs and into the mushy middle purgatory in which they found themselves during the John Ferguson Jr. Era. The team’s strength down the middle is a concern as is the continued makeup of the defense corps. Last season, the Maple Leafs benefitted greatly from the short season as there was less time for their soaring percentages to normalize over a full 82 games. In the offseason, they made a number of moves that reinforced the style of play that depends on the opposition carrying the balance of play while the Leafs work to benefit from what the team’s management describes as higher quality possession and scoring opportunities. A worst case scenario would see the outliers come back to the norm and the Leafs slide out of the playoffs.
Only by NHL logic are Raleigh, N.C. and Columbus, Ohio -- two cities separated by 480 miles of Appalachian wilderness -- in the same “metropolitan” area. Calling this thing the Metropolitan Division makes about as much sense as the glow puck, and by January we’ll all have our own new names for it; Patrick Plus, the Actual Atlantic, the Jagr Division. Feel free to create your own. Good thing we have the competition on the ice to distract us, with the Pens, Caps, Rangers, Isles, Flyers and Blue Jackets all hopeful playoff contenders.
* Projected order of finish determined by panel of SB Nation hockey writers
Many picked the Hurricanes as a potential playoff team a year ago thanks to the notable additions of Alexander Semin and Jordan Staal, but the squad sputtered, allowing the second-most goals in the NHL in 2013. Cam Ward is healthy in net entering the new year, but with defenseman Joni Pitkanen lost for the year, there are serious holes on the blue line and there’s not much hope that the Canes will be able to keep the puck out of the net, especially with the firepower sharing the new Metropolitan Division with them. — Travis Hughes
The top line: The line of Eric Staal, Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty was one of the highest producing even strength lines in the NHL last season and should be equally as dangerous this season. Staal had 53 points in 48 games, Semin 44 points in 44 games and Tlusty scored a career-high 23 goals in 48 games.
Strength at center: Carolina is strong down the middle with the one-two punch of Eric and Jordan Staal. While Jordan did not have his best year last season at minus-18, he has lost 10 pounds this offseason and is looking to come back this year in a big way.
Justin Faulk is a player on the rise and should now be looked upon as a strength of this team. The 21-year-old averaged a team-high 24 minutes of ice time per game last season, more than a minute more than anyone else on the Hurricanes.
Special teams were a disaster last season and will need to be improved for the team to have a chance to make the postseason. The Canes powerplay was 27th best in the league (14.6 percent) and their penalty kill was 28th (77.6 percent).
Team defense: It’s been a concern for a few years now and is still considered a weakness until proven otherwise, especially now with the loss of Joni Pitkanen for the year. Last season the Hurricanes allowed 32.2 shots per game, good for 26th in the league, and 3.31 goals per game, good for 29th.
Quality depth: Year after year, the Hurricanes are hit with injuries and there does not seem to be anyone to count on to step up and produce consistently and take the place of the injured players. While the top six are strong, the bottom six forwards who will make this team have little history of consistent scoring in the NHL.
If the team’s stars can stay relatively healthy, if it can get consistent quality goaltending, if it can shore up special teams, and if the revamped defense builds chemistry playing together, the Hurricanes should be able to contend for a playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division. That’s a lot of ifs. The goal is for the team to make the playoffs and get hot, then anything can happen. But very few pundits, if any, will project this team to be a Cup contender.
The worst case scenario is for the team to be hit by injuries, have a poor start and fall out of playoff contention early -- then, win enough games at the end of the season so that they cannot draft one of the very best draft picks. Carolina fans have seen their fair share of worst-case scenarios in recent years.
The Blue Jackets were … this… close… to qualifying for the postseason during the shortened season, thanks largely to the Vezina-winning heroics of Sergei Bobrovsky. New management seems to finally have Columbus on the path toward respectability, but are they a playoff team amongst the likes of Pittsburgh, New York, Philadelphia and Washington in the Metropolitan Division? — Travis Hughes
Goaltending: The Jackets received elite-level goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky last year, which resulted in the young Russian winning the Vezina Trophy, given to the league’s top goaltender each season. “Bob” was rewarded with a new two-year deal in the offseason. Bobrovsky will be backed up by Curtis McElhinney, an all-star with the Springfield Falcons of the AHL last season.
Hustle: Though it may be a bit cliche, the Jackets are committed to the “never outworked” philosophy instilled throughout the organization. There is a commitment from each player to never back down during a game, and though they aren’t the most talented team, their work ethic leads to success.
Defensive depth: The Jackets have assembled a talented and diverse blueline, made up of offensive defensemen, stay-at-home types and two-way defenders who contribute in all three zones. James Wisniewski and Nikita Nikitin have booming shots and contribute to the offense. Fedor Tyutin and Jack Johnson are more rounded in their playing style, and are fixtures on their respective national teams. The unit as a whole is likely going to receive a huge boost in the form of top prospect Ryan Murray, who is looking to crack the roster after missing most of last season due to injury.
Scoring: Though the Blue Jackets’ front office is talking a lot about “scoring by committee” and “carrying the mail”, the top scorers on the roster at this point are Marian Gaborik, who is recovering from offseason surgery, Nathan Horton, who is starting the season on IR because of offseason surgery, and Cam Atkinson, who is recovering from an ankle injury that hobbled him most of last season. This club needs to find goals, especially since their previous scoring leader, Vinny Prospal, is no longer on the roster.
Speed: Despite the advantages of being built to compete in the “tougher” Western Conference, the Blue Jackets are going to need help adjusting to the faster pace favored by Eastern Conference teams, and in particular to match up against their division. Clubs like the Oilers gave Columbus fits over the last two seasons because they could beat them in a track meet, particularly against their bottom six.
Inexperienced depth: While Columbus has some solid veterans in the NHL squad, they’re still a young team, and most of their depth in defense and in goal is younger still. If injuries start to stack up, they could quickly find themselves placing first or second year pros against the likes of Richards, Malkin, and Ovechkin.
Realignment brings uncertainty for Columbus. The Jackets are grouped with all new divisional foes, with each of those teams experiencing various levels of success last season. The Pittsburgh Penguins have to be considered the favorite to win the division, while the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers are well-stocked with talent and should be near the top of the division standings.
If the Jackets can continue to receive top goaltending from Bobrovsky and the team finds a way to score more goals, the Jackets are in a position to fight for third, more likely fourth place in the Metro. This would put them near the cutoff line for the playoffs, meaning they would be also competing with similarly-ranked teams in the Atlantic Division for one of the two Eastern Conference Wild Card spots.
The obvious worst case for Columbus starts in goal. If Vezina trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky suffers a setback, or worse, a major injury, the club will be in big trouble. Curtis McElhinney may be able to carry some portion of the load, but behind him are Jeremy Smith and Mike McKenna, neither of whom has more than a handful of NHL games on their resume.
Without Bobrovsky to help defend their net, a defense lead by Jack Johnson could easily find themselves giving up three or more goals a game, and even at full health it’s questionable that Columbus could answer with the offensive output needed to dig out of that hole night in and night out.
Should Nathan Horton’s shoulder need more rehab time than anticipated, or Marian Gaborik’s repaired groin develop complications, they’ll be in an even deeper hole, and it seems entirely possible that Columbus will find their “fresh start” in the Eastern Conference turning into the same old drop to the bottom of the standings that marked their time in the West.
Ilya Kovalchuk gave the Devils and the NHL the shock of the summer when he retired from North American puck to go home and play in the KHL. The decision left New Jersey’s scoring depth in tatters, and there’s no telling how Ryane Clowe, Jaromir Jagr and Damien Brunner will do to replace Kovy’s production. 2013-14 could be Martin Brodeur’s final year with Cory Schneider waiting in the wings after a draft day trade brought him from Vancouver. Will it be a frustrating finish to the Hall of Famer’s illustrious career? — Travis Hughes
Possession: While the Devils finished below the league median in average shots for last season, they allowed even less on average from their opposition. Whether the score was tied, close, or in general even strength situations, the Devils often out-attempted the other team. The only situation where they didn’t take 50% of attempts that got through to the net was when they were up by one goal and they were not far off by much. Usually, strong teams that contend for the Cup do well by this standard. The 2013 Devils managed to be an exception in missing the postseason, but when it came to the run of play, the 2013 team had it on lockdown more than most. The departures of David Clarkson and Henrik Tallinder can hurt a degree, but Ilya Kovalchuk was never a play driver and the rest of the defense still pushed the puck ahead at evens when Tallinder wasn’t playing last season. With many primary play drivers returning, the Devils should be expected to be among league leaders in terms of shooting attempt differential and it should keep them as a tough team to play against.
Defense: Contrary to what you may hear from the fanbase or from other experts, the New Jersey Devils still finished first in average shots per game with 23.1 allowed last season. Much of the trepidation about the defense was with the personnel. However valid criticisms of Bryce Salvador, Marek Zidlicky and Co. may have been, the results showed that the team still did quite well, and the blueline was better than the sum of its parts. For 2013-14, the majority of that defense returns as do the defensively-helpful forwards (e.g. Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, Adam Henrique). While Tallinder was dumped to Buffalo, Adam Larsson should be expected to take on a larger role and there should be less rotation of players, allowing for a more consistent defense in front of the goalies. It’s entirely possible the defense could be even better. That is, as long as Salvador’s role is more limited and more time is given to Larsson and Fayne to get stops. Even then, it may all work out again like last season, which wouldn’t be bad at all from a shot-prevention point of view.
Versatility at Forward: The Devils were active in the offseason, signing forwards Ryane Clowe, Rostislav Olesz, Jaromir Jagr and Michael Ryder. They also inked the legendary Elias, Dainius Zubrus, and Henrique to new deals. The Devils suddenly have a coaches’ preferred problem: versatility. Many of the Devils forwards can play multiple positions. Elias, Zubrus, Henrique, Jacob Josefson, Rostislav Olesz, Ryan Carter and Stephen Gionta can play center as well as one of the wing positions. That bolsters the middle that already includes Zajac and Andrei Loktionov. Clowe and Ryder could switch to the off-wings if needed as well. When injuries arise or when performance demands it, DeBoer will be able to shift his lineup in many more directions. He’ll also be able to to put in quality players on the third line as opposed to pushing fourth line caliber players up like he did in the beginning of last season. While the Devils’ vertical depth at forward may not be strong going into the minors, New Jersey’s horizontal depth is good.
Scoring Goals: Thanks to low shooting percentages both at 5-on-5 and on the power play, the Devils were one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league last year despite high possession numbers, and their stinginess of defense was often for naught. Some of it was simply bad luck, but even with better fortunes, scoring is a concern. David Clarkson and Ilya Kovalchuk, the last two Devils to put up more than 30 goals in a full season, are now elsewhere. Elias, the all-time leading scorer in franchise history, is another year older, and no one else returning from last year has been a top scorer. The Devils did sign Clowe, Ryder, Brunner and Jagr; but it’s not known how much they can and will contribute. They’ll have to be a score-by-committee team this season to have success.
Power Play: The Devils finished with a success rate of only 15.9 percent last season, and better shooting percentages may help this area alone. Yet the voluntary retirement of Kovalchuk, who would often play the full two minutes on the point, hurts big time. He was their best weapon. That set-up to the right point is now gone, those minutes need to be made up, those shots (plus David Clarkson’s down low) are elsewhere, and the Devils will have to make due. Jagr, Brunner and Ryder may help, but who will be positioned on the point? They only have one offensive-minded defenseman in Zidlicky and he can only handle playing on one unit. The secondary unit spots remain open and while the Devils have the bodies, they may not have the quality for an effective unit. Even if the Devils solely rely on getting the puck down low, handling and passing from the points is a crucial part of this special team. It remains an open question going into 2013-14.
Speed: The Devils have a dearth of fast players, which could prove to be a detriment at both ends of the rink. Of their new free agent signings, Clowe and Ryder are not particularly fast, Olesz has a history of knee issues, and Jagr is pushing 42 and has lost a step. Of the forwards who were re-signed, the Devils must be hoping Elias isn’t going to lose a step at age 37, Zubrus was never a quick player and he’s 35, and no one except for possibly Henrique or Andrei Loktionov can really burn an opponent. The Devils’ defense features captain Bryce Salvador and Anton Volchenkov, who are both noticeably slow. Fast teams could present a real match-up problem for New Jersey in 2013-14.
The New Jersey Devils not only continue being a strong possession team like they were last season, but they also manage a shooting percentage that’s close to league average like they did in 2011-12. They actually get some bounces, opposing goalies don’t make as many ridiculous stops, and the defensive effort isn’t on a knife’s edge night-in and night-out. Cory Schneider plays like he did in Vancouver in 2013 and posts an overall save percentage of at least 92 percent while getting a majority of the starts, and Martin Brodeur holds up decently in splitting the twenty-two back-to-back sets the team faces. The Devils may not have any top scorers with the possible exception of Patrik Elias continuing to be an awesome player at age 37 and they won’t have a stud defender. The Devils may not have any top scorers -- the awesome 37-year-old Elias being the exception -- or a stud defender, but they’ll just be an incredibly difficult team to play against as everyone contributes in some significant manner at both ends; something Devils fans will hold up as a badge of pride. Boasts from the faithful aside, they’ll compile a record that has them seriously challenge for one of the automatic playoff spots in the Metropolitan Division and maybe scare New York or Pittsburgh a little bit. Depending on who they get matched up against in the first round, they could make some noise in the postseason.
The Gambler’s Fallacy essentially means that bad or good luck does not mean it will balance out in the future. Just as a lack of good puck luck combined with a propensity of mistakes turning costly largely led to their playoff-less 2013 season, we see a repeat of both in 2013-14, which is entirely possible. The Devils may out-play some seriously good teams and yet find ways to lose, causing nightmares of deja vu. The skaters look slow and opposing teams prey upon it. Forwards will create shots but not goals. The power play won’t have any, giving people a reminder of the 2002-03 season when fans openly pleaded for the Devils to decline power plays. The defense just gets loose, lost and lame in critical moments for goals against. The coaching staff stubbornly sticks with Brodeur despite poorer play and/or it’s revealed that Schneider was better off in Vancouver. They’ll try to make adjustments and small trades during the season in the hopes of catching lightning in the bottle, only for the spark to do little good. The team isn’t so bad that they’ll sink to the bottom of the NHL, but it’ll be too late before they realize they won’t make the postseason. At the end, the fans are unhappy, players are miffed, DeBoer’s seat gets hot if not vacated, and the team tries (and fails) to make a panic trade hoping for a first round pick in return before another offseason where the team will have to spend a lot of money to hope for better days in 2014-15.
No longer are the Islanders an automatic win circled on the calendar. Expectations are up on Long Island coming off the team’s first postseason appearance since 2007, and simply qualifying for the playoffs again is no longer the best case scenario. With rising superstar John Tavares at the helm as captain, the Isles enter the 2013-14 season looking to prove to the rest of the formidable Metropolitan Division that last year was not just a fluke. Instead, it’s the new normal. — Matt Brigidi
Offense: Led by budding star John Tavares, the Islanders offense scored 2.81 goals per game to rank 7th overall in 2012-13. Repeat 30-goal man Matt Moulson boosts Tavares’s wing, while Frans Nielsen keys offense (and checking defense) from the second line, and speedy Michael Grabner is a regular 20-goal threat despite third-line minutes.
Prospect Depth: Whether up front or on defense, the Islanders are prepared for any injuries with high-end prospects waiting in Bridgeport. Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee competed for NHL jobs in training camp and will be the first call-ups if the injury bug hits the forwards. Meanwhile Calvin de Haan, Matt Donovan and Aaron Ness are ready to grab jobs on the blueline if any veteran defensemen slip up.
Speed: Hard to define but easy to know it when you see it, team speed is one of the things that vaulted the Islanders into a playoff team last spring -- and scared the heavily favored Pittsburgh Penguins in the six-game first round. It’s not just that the Isles can skate fast, it’s that they move the puck quickly to diffuse opponents’ pressure and ignite their counterattack.
Goaltending: The one area the Islanders lack prospect depth is also the one area they are most likely to need it. Evgeni Nabokov is just an average NHL goalie on his best days, and a weakness at age 38 on his worst ones. While Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson are competing to win the backup job, each has an uneven recent history and the Islanders may need to seek help from outside.
Budget: The Islanders have been conservative with payroll during their rebuild, often finding smart bargain purchases but also keeping barely above the league-mandated salary floor. While GM Garth Snow has always insisted he has the approval from owner Charles Wang to spend big if he identifies a purchase that will help the team, now that expectations have been raised this is the year where that assertion may be tested.
Slow Starts: Key players like Kyle Okposo have the reputation for slow starts to the season, a rap that plagues the team overall. Last season was no different, though the team recovered in time to grab the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Islanders will have to avoid reading their own press clippings and continue the surge that earned them respectability in the East.
John Tavares continues his ascent to superstardom, prospects like Matt Donovan, Ryan Strome and Brock Nelson make major contributions, the power play survives the departure of Mark Streit, and Evgeni Nabokov plays like he hasn’t since two lockouts ago while his backups prove they deserve to be called the franchise’s “goalies of the future.” The Islanders prove last year was no fluke and, indeed, they serve notice they will be a Metropolitan Division contender for years to come.
The Islanders suffer a major injury, Evgeni Nabokov gets older and worse, Nabokov’s backups fail to become NHL goaltenders, and the special teams plummet as the Isles find no internal replacement for Mark Streit. Last year’s playoff appearance becomes a one-and-done blip, and the Islanders are left questioning the progress of Garth Snow’s rebuild.
John Tortorella’s reign of terror is over, and in comes the new, fresh outlook from head coach Alain Vigneault. Brad Richards is just one of the Rangers thankful for the opportunity to start over with a new, less-fiery voice in charge on Broadway. With Henrik Lundqvist in goal, a talented and deep group of forwards and top-to-bottom the best defense in the Metropolitan Division (when healthy), the Rangers seem a playoff lock. But there’s just no telling how New York will look after taking a clear step back during the lockout-shortened 2013 season. — Travis Hughes
The New York Rangers have the best goaltender in the NHL in Henrik Lundqvist. He’s been the main reason behind the Rangers’ success since he first came to Broadway. Lundqvist gives the Rangers a true edge every single game simply because of his skill (and his position). He will be more visible this year, especially since the Rangers are employing a more offensive system under Alain Vigneault. Lundqvist should make that transition a little easier, especially as the Rangers get used to the new system early.
Offensive depth: This was the main point of focus for the Rangers as they walked into this summer. Last year the Rangers brought in Mats Zuccarello right before the playoffs to help make the bottom six deeper, but the move proved to be too little too late as the Boston Bruins exploited the Rangers’ lack of depth in the second round of the playoffs. So Glen Sather made a couple of savvy moves this offseason, bringing in forwards Benoit Pouliot and Dominic Moore for cheap to help solidify the bottom six. Throw in Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller taking on expanded roles, and a group of good, young players -- Oscar Lindberg, Danny Kristo and Jesper Fast -- who might be able to come in if needed, and the Rangers depth looks miles better than it did last year.
Defensive Health: Last year the Rangers lost Marc Staal to a scary eye injury that saw the Rangers star defenseman miss all but one playoff game. His absence (and John Tortorella’s unwillingness to roll three defensive pairings) forced the Rangers to lean on guys like Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Michael Del Zotto heavily, running McDonagh and Girardi into the ground and causing conditioning issues once the playoffs rolled around. That shouldn’t be an issue this year, with John Moore looking like a serious gem ready to take on a big role and Staal back fully healthy.
The Power Play: This is expected to change under Vigneault, but until we actually see the results it has to be considered the Rangers’ biggest weakness. The Rangers’ man advantage converted just 15.7% of the time, good for 23rd in the NHL. Things got even worse in the playoffs, when the Rangers power play had a dismal 9.1% conversion rate. The power play was probably the biggest reason the Rangers were ousted in the second round of the playoffs last year. The pieces are in place for that to change this year, but until we see it remains a weakness.
Offensive Consistency: Something else that’s expected to change under Vigneault, but has to be put on the list until we see it change. Last year the Rangers’ offense was wildly inconsistent -- thanks to a horrid power play and the Rangers youth (Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller specifically) not being ready for a more important role on the team. That hurt the Rangers last year both in the regular season and the playoffs. It also doesn’t help that both Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin (two integral cogs in the Rangers machine) are going to miss a portion of this upcoming season with twin shoulder injuries. The Rangers depth (and youth) will have to get off to a hot start to help even things out until they return.
Defensive Depth: The Rangers have a very, very good top six in terms of their defensive corps. But if any of those players get injured the well is nearly empty. Justin Falk was brought in to be the Rangers seventh defenseman, but he hasn’t been very impressive in camp or through the first few preseason games. The Rangers allowed Steve Eminger to walk, even though he filled in admirably for Marc Staal in the playoffs last year. Stu Bickel is another option, but he’s in the same boat as Falk. If the Rangers defense can stay healthy they’re a force to be reckoned with. If they can’t, well, the replacements have holes.
The best case scenario requires an easy transition to Vigneault’s system. The Rangers power play clicks at a reasonable rate, the youth (Kreider, Miller, John Moore and Michael Del Zotto) take on a bigger role and the Rangers offense is more consistent thanks to the new depth inserted into the lineup. The Rangers (with a terrible power play and no offensive consistency) still made it to the second round of the playoffs. Lundqvist was a big part of that. The Bruins, of course, rolled the depthless Rangers out of the second round but it still speaks to the core the Rangers employ. If Vigneault’s changes fix those problems -- and the Rangers youth continues to grow -- the Rangers should be considered true Stanley Cup contenders.
Lundqvist gets injured, the Rangers power play doesn’t get any better or injuries plague the team’s depth. The Rangers put a lot of stock in getting deeper, and if their depth doesn’t come through they’re going to run into the same issues they did last year. The Rangers have the best goaltender in the world, but other problems have kept the Rangers from making the Stanley Cup Finals. Injuries have played a role, but a lack of depth and offensive creativity have been the main culprits. If those issues continue, well, the Rangers won’t be any better than they have been.
Philadelphia slogged through the lockout-shortened 2013 season with their heads in their hands, a mediocre team ravaged by injuries on their way to a rare year without playoff hockey. But after a busy offseason, the Flyers are in much better shape to compete for a playoff spot in 2013-14. They gave Ilya Bryzgalov $23 million simply so he would go away, they replaced the also-bought-out Danny Briere with perennial 25-plus goal scorer Vincent Lecavalier, and they signed the NHL’s top free agent defenseman in Mark Streit. There are still big questions in goal and on defense, but the Flyers are on much better footing as they embark on their first season in the Metropolitan Division. — Travis Hughes
The addition of Lecavalier was a coup for the Flyers, who seemingly pulled it out of thin air. Lecavalier represents an improvement -- both offensively and defensively -- from Danny Briere, who was bought out in June and later signed in Montreal. Lecavalier and Claude Giroux team up to anchor a formidable top-six that includes former 30 goal scorer Scott Hartnell, two possible 30 goal scorers in Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds, and a still-growing talent in Brayden Schenn.
All six guys can put the puck in the net with ease and will trigger an extremely balanced Flyers attack in 2013-14. Oh, and that’s excluding Sean Couturier, a 100 point player in juniors who could see more of an offensive role in his third NHL season, and Matt Read, who scored 24 goals as a rookie two years ago.
The Flyers had the NHL’s third-best power play and its fifth-best penalty killing unit last season, and they return just about every key piece of those units that had so much success a year ago. The power play features weapons like Giroux, Voracek and Hartnell, and the quarterbacking talents of Timonen. It should be even deeper than it was last year with the additions of Lecavalier and Streit, both of whom were among their team’s leaders in PP ice time per game last season.
The penalty killing team loses Ruslan Fedotenko -- the Flyers 2013 leader in total shorthanded ice time -- but the Flyers have at least seven, perhaps eight forwards they’re comfortable with cycling through four spots on their two PK units, so they shouldn’t miss Fedotenko much. With improved seasons expected from key PK cogs Braydon Coburn and Nicklas Grossmann, the Flyers should be near the top of the league in this department yet again.
Health: Philly had plenty of issues last season, but chief among them were injury woes. Excluding Chris Pronger, who’s technically still on the roster but will never play a game again thanks to concussion problems, the Flyers lost 216 man games to injury in 2013. That’s in a lockout-shortened 48 game season. The Flyers were hit particularly hard on the blueline, with Andrej Meszaros, Nicklas Grossmann and Braydon Coburn all missing significant time. Those injuries forced several unexperienced young players into roles they couldn’t handle, and the results weren’t pretty. The team entered training camp nearly completely healthy this year, however, and expect to be much better as a result.
Goaltending: As it often tends to be, goaltending is a big question mark -- likely the biggest one -- for the Flyers coming into this season. Following the expensive June buyout that ended the wildly unsuccessful Ilya Bryzgalov experiment, the Flyers look to head into the season with a tandem of Steve Mason and Ray Emery in net. Mason, the 2009 Calder Trophy winner, has struggled immensely for most of the four seasons since. The Flyers believe they can turn his career around. We'll believe that when we see it. Emery is coming off of an excellent year as a backup for the Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawks, but it remains to be seen how he handles an increased workload just three summers removed from a serious hip surgery.
Defensive depth: The addition of former Islanders captain Mark Streit, an excellent offensive defenseman, should greatly help out a blue line that was slow, injured and flat out bad for most of last season. However, while the Flyers have a good number of capable defensemen (i.e. Streit, Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Luke Schenn), they appear to lack a true top pair that can make things easier on the rest of the team. Chances are whichever players end up getting the most minutes and toughest assignments will end up overworked, and the whole unit and team might suffer as a result.
Discipline: The Flyers spent the second-most time of any NHL team last season on the penalty kill, and they have been in the top 5 in that number in each of the last six seasons. Chances are that streak will increase to seven this year. The departure of Briere, who commits his fair share of stick fouls, will help. But several of the team's forwards and defensemen are susceptible to spending a lot of time in the box, which is less than ideal no matter how good the team's penalty kill may be.
The offensive depth lives up to its potential, and the Flyers are one of the top-scoring teams in hockey. On the back end, puck-moving, offensively-minded defenseman Kimmo Timonen and Mark Streit team up with defensively-minded, stay-at-home guys Luke Schenn and Braydon Coburn to form a formidable top-four. Healthy competition between Ray Emery and Steve Mason yields the Flyers at least one strong, consistent option in net. Elsewhere, the Rangers 2013 struggles return despite a new coach, Pittsburgh’s goaltending is the worst in Pennsylvania, and nice years from the Islanders and Blue Jackets last season prove to be flashes in the pan. It all comes together to make Philly a top team in the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference.
The injury bug shows no mercy, the defense struggles to find a foot hold, and the goaltending implodes (again). The offense is deep and scary, but in a world where the defense and goaltending can’t keep the other team off the scoreboard or even out of the defensive end of the ice, the Flyers won’t be able to score enough goals to consistently stay in the win column. Tee times in April, and both a coach and a general manager on the hot seat or worse.
Pittsburgh loaded up at the 2013 trade deadline, the clear favorite to win the Stanley Cup entering the postseason. It all unraveled on playoff ice, though, with Marc-Andre Fleury turning into a shell of his former Stanley Cup-winning self for the second playoff year in a row and a typically potent offense that suddenly went flat. The Pens return to the ice this fall the favorites to win the Metropolitan Division, but Fleury remains a huge question mark. — Travis Hughes
Two superstar centers: No team in the league, other than the Pittsburgh Penguins, has two realistic potential scoring champions and MVP’s on their roster. Sidney Crosby is the best offensive player in the game, putting up higher points/game than any other player, but needs to avoid injuries and play enough of a season to get back to winning scoring titles. Evgeni Malkin has the proven ability to do so as well, having won two NHL scoring titles (2009, 2012). Having two MVP caliber centers on their top two lines is amazing strength that’s been the key to several great regular seasons.
Scoring: The Penguins return their top seven leading scorers from 2013, when they led the NHL with 3.38 goals per game. Pittsburgh also had the second best power play in the league last year (24.7 percent) and should be in store for another high scoring season led by Crosby, Malkin, former 40 goal scorer James Neal and dynamic defenseman Kris Letang.
System Fits: Coach Dan Bylsma likes to play an uptempo game stressing defensemen make quick passes to forwards who then can rush into the offensive zone, and use an aggressive forechecking system to retrieve the puck and start all over again. Players like Neal, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz are perfect forwards for this system, as are defensemen like Letang and Paul Martin that can move the puck well.
Question mark in net: Marc-Andre Fleury may have an above average save percentage league wide in five of the last eight regular seasons, but he also has two of the worst playoff seasons ever in the past two seasons. Can the Pens go back to him in 2014? Can he shake off whatever demons that he’s had in facing playoff series in the past few seasons? It’s the biggest question to shape Pittsburgh’s season and one that can’t truly be answered until next April when Fleury will have the chance to again sink or swim based on how he plays when the games really count.
Salary cap concerns: The Penguins have committed much of the salary cap to their key players and find themselves having to manuever carefully to stay under the $64.3 million upper limit. Last season they had more room to operate and were able to make several key veteran additions (like Iginla, Morrow, Douglas Murray) around the trade deadline without sacrificing any major league players. This season Pittsburgh does not have that benefit of having space to operate without financial consideration, and the moves made by GM Ray Shero will have to be weighed carefully to make sure the team stays cap compliant.
Checking wingers: The Pens lost Matt Cooke, Tyler Kennedy, Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla from their roster last spring and didn’t bring in a lot to replace them. Players like Jussi Jokinen, Matt D’Agostini and Tanner Glass will be counted on to step up and play important roles for the Pens in the less glamorous, but often equally important roles that a hockey team has.
If Fleury can regain his form and Crosby, Malkin and Letang can avoid the injury bug, the Penguins season should be an exceptional one. They should win what will be a competitive Metropolitan Division behind the strength and depth of their offensive players. Expectations will be sky high for another run at the Stanley Cup, since in the best of all scenarios Pittsburgh will have one of the best records and offenses in the entire league.
Again, it all starts with Fleury. If he falters and then Crosby and Malkin also suffer injuries as they have in prior years, it could be a long season for Pittsburgh. Though they have had the experience of playing competitively without their stars in the past, worst-case the Penguins are on the playoff bubble and have to struggle through poor goaltending and defensive meltdowns without the offensive firepower to cover-up any mistakes and hobble into the end of the season needing wins to secure a playoff berth.
Southleast no more. The Capitals have dealt with the naysayers for years -- those who claimed the team only appeared competitive thanks to the weak division in which they played. Now Washington has a chance to prove those naysayers wrong as they shift to the Metropolitan Division to battle in arguably the most competitive division in hockey. Adam Oates enters his first full, 82-game season behind the bench in the Nation’s Capital, and hopes are high that the Caps can finally find some playoff success. — Travis Hughes
Depth and versatility up front: It’s not often that signing a single second-line forward in August can completely change the complexion of a team’s group of forwards, but that’s exactly what the addition of Grabovski did for the Caps. Instead of a team that was poised to start square-peg Brooks Laich in the gaping round-hole that was the second-line center slot, Grabovski will assume that role, allowing Laich to shift to a more-natural wing or checking-line center, and other dominoes to fall accordingly. The result is a group of likely bottom-six forwards that includes a trio of former 20-goal scorers (Laich or Martin Erat, Eric Fehr and Jason Chimera), and timely scorer Joel Ward. And with 2012 first round draft pick Tom Wilson making the team, the depth gets even greater.
The power play: In 2013, the Caps rode rookie bench boss Adam Oates’s version of the 1-3-1 power-play alignment to a League-best 26.8 percent efficiency and 44 extra-man tallies. The shooting percentage and conversion rate were likely unsustainably high, and the unit did lose the creativity and passing wizardry of Ribeiro. But even with a decent-sized regression, this is an excellent unit with quarterbacks Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green and trigger-men Alex Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer. And don’t be surprised if Oates still has a few tricks up his sleeve if opponents start shutting them down.
AO and AO: Much was made of the Caps captain’s position change, early struggles and resurgence as he carried his team to an improbable playoff berth en route to a third career Hart Trophy as League MVP. And while some of that is narrative-driven hyperbole, Adam Oates’s greatest accomplishment on the season was “fixing” Ovechkin, restoring the winger’s productivity and confidence. The Caps have a lot of years and dollars remaining on their investment in Alex Ovechkin, and Oates’s ability to maximize their return on that investment will continue to be critical to the team’s success.
The fourth top-four defenseman: The Caps’ “Big Three” defensemen of John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Mike Green are as good a trio of under-28 rearguards as there is in the League, and the team is pretty well-stocked in terms of third-pairing and depth blueliners. But someone needs to play in the top-four (likely alongside Carlson) and none of the options are particularly desirable. John Erskine is the incumbent, but he’s better-equipped for a smaller role. Dmitry Orlov has the tools, but the organization doesn’t seem to believe he’s ready for the responsibility yet. Jack Hillen is undersized and his track record says he’s not the answer either. The Caps are likely to start the season with what they have, but don’t be surprised if they have to address this roster hole sooner rather than later, especially if there’s an injury further up the depth chart.
The penalty kill: How bad was the Caps’ penalty kill in 2013? It ranked 27th in efficiency and 29th in shots-against rate, meaning things would’ve been even uglier if they didn’t get some tremendous goaltending while down a man. But the unit finished strong, killing off better than 81% of opponents’ power plays over the second half of the season (and nearly 85 percent in the last quarter) before going 26-for-28 against the Rangers in the playoffs. If the penalty kill reverts to “Achilles’ heel” status, the Caps could be in trouble, especially if they remain in the top-half of the League in penalties.
Puck possession: As the availability of hard data and the analysis of it advances in the sport, teams and fans can more easily track aspects of the game such as puck possession, and in 2013 the Caps struggled in those metrics. Certainly the adjustment to Oates’s system played a part in that, but their team-level possession numbers never got good until the playoffs (so, as was the case with the penalty kill, perhaps there’s reason to believe that this weakness is on its way out). The Caps will need to get better in this area if they’re going to cushion the likely impact of regressions in some others (namely on-ice shooting and save percentages), and compete with the League’s elite teams. Put another way, it’s better to play with the puck than to be chasing it all game, and the Caps were chasing it far too much last season.
The team stays healthy, Braden Holtby proves he’s the real deal in net (and is ably backed-up by Michal Neuvirth), the power play keeps humming along, Ovechkin continues to play at a Hart Trophy-level, Oates’s system masks any deficiencies the team has on the back end and the Caps contend for first in the Metropolitan Division. But really, this team - Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals - has had plenty of regular season success, so any “best case scenario” has to involve the team making some noise in the playoffs, and that would likely mean making it to the third round (or further) for the first time since 1998.
Green’s injury woes continue, exposing the D-corps’ weak middle, Ovechkin and the power play don’t get the same “puck luck” that aided last year’s run to the playoffs, Holtby comes crashing back to earth and Oates has no answers. Then again, for these Caps, the “worst case scenario” might be a dominant regular season followed up by a(nother) disappointing post-season underachievement. Been there, done that.
Luongo in goal, a new coach behind the bench, and an aging core? The Canucks just have too many question marks, and as a result, the Pacific is shaping up as a Battle of California. The Kings are obvious Cup contenders yet again, the Sharks might just be on one last run with Marleau, Thornton and Boyle before turning the team over to Logan Couture, and the Ducks are out to prove that last year was not a fluke. Vancouver and Phoenix might contend, but there’s no doubt this division runs through the Golden State.
* Projected order of finish determined by panel of SB Nation hockey writers
Every Anaheim Ducks game will be must-see-TV this season, and that’s not because we all want to see if they can somehow repeat the shocking 48-game run they compiled during the 2013 shortened season. Sure, we’re curious if last year was just a blip on the radar for the Ducks, and how they get by without Bobby Ryan but let’s not pretend the 2013-14 season in Anaheim is anything but The Teemu Selanne Show. — Travis Hughes
Forward depth: For years under Randy Carlyle following the 2007 Stanley Cup season, the Ducks were a one line team, relying heavily on the production of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan and Teemu Selanne. In Bruce Boudreau’s first “full” season behind the bench last year, we saw an increased trust and maturity level in younger players and the abandonment of strictly defined scoring, checking and energy line roles. Scoring generated from lower in the lineup was a huge factor in the team’s fast start.
The Ducks must replace Ryan this year, but the addition of Jakob Silfverberg and Dustin Penner, the continued development of Kyle Palmieri and Emerson Etem, as well as the return of veterans Selanne and Saku Koivu have pushed players with everything to prove at the end of their entry-level deals like Peter Holland and Devante Smith-Pelly to the fringes of the roster. It may be a case of quantity over quality, but Ducks fans and management alike are hoping that the competition will prove a motivating factor.
Goaltending: This is more of an organizational strength for the Ducks. Viktor Fasth jumped out to an outrageous start to his career last year, winning his first eight NHL games as well as the starting position and a two-year contract in the process. His inevitable fall back to earth and some nagging injuries allowed Jonas Hiller to regain the net toward the end of the year and in the playoffs.
With Fasth only proven through a lockout-shortened season and Hiller in the last year of his contract (possibly on the trading block) the situation could change dramatically. Even so, Frederik Andersen was one of the AHL’s top goalies last season (on a struggling Norfolk Admirals team) and super-prospect/American Hero John Gibson will be waiting in the wings, developing into the Ducks’ goaltender of the future.
Teemu's last stand: He might not play in every game to keep some juice in his 43-year-old legs, but the entire season will revolve around the Teemu Selanne Farewell Tour. A lot of Ducks fans had resigned themselves to the fact that it was over after last year, and some probably thought it for the best. We finally began to see some of the effects of age last year, but when he was fresh to start the season, he still had the ability to be the best player on the ice.
Defense: Anaheim is in a tough situation in terms of defense to start off the season. Francois Beauchemin is recovering from a knee injury. Sheldon Souray is out recovering from wrist surgery and likely won't return to the lineup until December. Luca Sbisa injured his ankle during the preseason. Toni Lydman retired. What the team’s defensive pairings will look like come opening night at this point is anybody’s guess. Taking away these big pieces from an already inconsistent defense is a great way to throw the Ducks into a tailspin very early on.
Puck possession: The Ducks were able to defy the odds last season, scoring a high number of goals (and winning a lot of games) despite not having possession of the puck as often as they should have. Those who champion advanced stats point to this as a sign that, had we seen a full 82-game season last year, the team’s success would have regressed as the season went on. Being that we didn’t have a full season, we never found out if this would in fact be the situation. But the case for regression is strong; the team’s overall Corsi percentage had Anaheim at 26th in the league. Not very good.
Teemu's last stand: Yes, Teemu is great, but his farewell tour will be a huge distraction this season. He’s a great player and will likely remain great -- at least in stretches -- during his final season, but every night will be all about him, especially when the team is on the road.
Last season wasn’t a fluke, and the team comes off to another great start under Bruce Boudreau’s system. Young forward depth (and/or the return of Dustin Penner) is able to fill in the gap that Bobby Ryan leaves behind. An explosive offense right from the start of the season is able to make up for a shaky defense as we wait for the blue line to get healthy. Perry and Getzlaf show us why they earned those eight-year contracts, and Selanne stays healthy and productive throughout his swan song. The team is once again a powerhouse in the Pacific Division, and with the new playoff format making it more likely that they are able to face the Sharks or Kings in the postseason, the Ducks once again get a memorable Battle of California series against San Jose, or finally see the postseason matchup we’ve all been waiting for against Los Angeles. Bruce Boudreau finally sees some playoff success as a coach.
Young players like Etem, Palmieri and Silferberg can’t fill the gap left by Bobby Ryan. The advanced stat folkd are correct in the Ducks 2013 PDO and shooting percentage regressing to the mean. Perry and Getzlaf get fat and lazy on their eight year $60+ million contracts. Penner is injured by a waffle. Fasth turns out to be a flash in the pan. Selanne gets injured and isn’t afforded his victory lap around the league. The team finishes just outside the playoffs earning a middle of the road draft pick, while the Kings beat Detroit in the Stanley Cup Final.
You’re in it for the long haul, Flames fans. The rebuild has officially begun. Both Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff are in the rear view mirror for good, and just a quick glance at the roster will tell you that 2013-14 will be a long season. Calgary looks weak and young at just about every position, and the only hope is that the Flames are both bad and lucky enough to win the top pick in the draft lottery. — Travis Hughes
Young players = exciting hockey: For the first time in over a decade, the Flames will ice a roster that actually consists of young players who are regulars on the team, rather than just stop-gap measures for when one of their veteran players inevitably gets injured, and it’s pretty darn exciting. Looking at the age column on the team’s roster page and seeing the numbers 24, 25, 23, 22 and 20 rather than 35, 36, and 33 is encouraging and provides hope that management may finally be heading in the right direction with this squad.
When the Flames finally committed to a rebuild (at least to the extent that Jay Feaster was willing to admit) at the end of last season, giving players like Max Reinhart, Sven Baertschi, Roman Horak and Mark Cundari a chance, it was the most entertaining hockey they had played for quite some time. On a team that couldn’t string two wins together for most of the season, watching these players block shots, kill penalties, hustle back to negate an odd-man rush and generally do everything they could do to help the team win, even when everyone thought they should be tanking, was refreshing after several years of stale hockey. The Flames may not be a good team this year, but it will likely be easier for fans to stomach if they’re watching young players who are having fun on the ice than it would be if they were watching another season full of depressing post-blowout interviews where Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay sound like they’re about to cry.
The bottom six: The Flames have usually been able to glean solid production and possession numbers from their bottom six, and this season with players like Reinhart, Horak, TJ Galiardi, Lance Bouma and Corban Knight in the mix alongside veterans like Matt Stajan and Tim Jackman, their bottom-six forward group should be strong and energized enough to provide the team with the extra jump they need against teams that have a weaker bottom end of their roster. On defense, the Flames also have depth and versatility on their bottom pairing in the form of Kris Russell, Shane O’Brien and Derek Smith as well as rookies Tyler Wotherspoon, Chad Billins, John Ramage and Patrick Sieloff who will be looking for their chance to crack the big club’s roster.
Actual competition in net: For the first time since Miikka Kiprusoff set foot in the Saddledome back in 2003, the starting goalie position for the Flames is wide open. I’m not sure if this necessarily falls under the category of strength, seeing as no goalie has yet proven himself good enough to be a bonafide number one, but hear me out. With Kiprusoff, it didn’t matter how bad the performance was -- he as virtually guaranteed every start. Now, Karri Ramo, Joey MacDonald and Reto Berra will actually have to compete for starts. If one goalie plays well, then he should be given the reins until he plays poorly, and vice versa. This is no slag on Kiprusoff, he was far and away the best goalie this team has ever had, but when you don’t have a viable back-up option to push your starting goalie to be the best he can be night in and night out, there’s a lack of accountability there. Not anymore.
The top of the roster:
While the departures of Tanguay and Iginla were necessary for the rebuild, they leave a gaping hole in the top six. Two second lines does not a first line make. Curtis Glencross, Lee Stempniak and Mikael Backlund or Mike Cammalleri will likely end up tackling some of the opposition’s tougher competition and their numbers could very likely suffer as a result. While that would open up space for others to succeed against weaker competition, can the rest of the team carry the load? We’re not confident that they can.
On defense, newly minted captain Mark Giordano and Dennis Wideman will shoulder a lot of responsibility which will be a test for both of them, as neither has really been forced into a consistent top-two role before. They will be followed closely by TJ Brodie, who had a breakout season last year and will be under pressure to prove he can sustain that performance over the course of a full season. Chris Butler, who has yet to really impress since joining the team in 2011, rounds out the top four. Butler struggled playing tough minutes alongside Jay Bouwmeester when he first came to the Flames, and he’ll still be going up against some pretty good players if he does indeed suit up alongside Brodie on the second pairing. Having to carry the load for his partner certainly won’t do Brodie, still just 23, any favors.
Lack of clarity at center: The question shifts from “Who will center Iginla?” to “Who will center? … Period.” Cammalleri has been shuffled back and forth from the wing, and Backlund deserves a shot at that role after another season where he has proven able to handle everything his opposition throws at him and more. Matt Stajan had something of a bounce-back year for the Flames last season in the sense that he exceeded expectations in his role as a bottom-six centre. Stajan remaining in a position to succeed (i.e. third line centre) really depends on the success/failure of Mike Cammalleri up the middle and in what capacity Hartley decides to use Backlund. After Stajan, things get a little murky, with Roman Horak, Corban Knight, Max Reinhart, Sean Monahan, Lance Bouma andBlair Jones, all natural centers, competing for the role of fourth-line pivot. Oh, and did I mention TJ Galiardi also plays center? The Flames are at a point where this good problem to have is actually just overly complicated.
Realignment: It’s more than fair to say that the Flames’ new Pacific Division foes won’t help them exceed expectations this season In 2011-12, the last full season, the Flames had a record of 8-4-4 against the Ducks, Kings, Sharks and Coyotes, and they got outshot in each series. Last season, they were 3-8-0 against the same teams. Against Vancouver and Edmonton, they were 3-5-1. There’s no doubt that the Flames’ other weaknesses will be magnified in a division where all but two teams made the playoffs last season. No stat padding against the Wild and Avalanche this year.
There are two best case scenarios for the Flames this season. The first one would be that they finish at the bottom of the conference and are awarded a lottery pick, finally enabling them to draft that future star in the top five at next summer’s draft.
The other would be that the team simply exceeds expectations this season, which I would define as finishing the season ranked 9th to 11th in the West, without any flukey numbers involved. Any sign of actual progression or improvement compared to the previous season in the situation the Flames are in is a positive indicator that a rebuilding team is moving in the right direction, even if it’s marginally so.
Seeing immediate results in a rebuild is unlikely, and improvement over a one-year period might be encouraging, but still short-term in nature. If the Flames were able to secure a lottery pick, the potential for long-term improvement would likely be much greater.
Of course, the Flames somehow finishing 9th or 10th in the West would also be a double-edged sword, especially for an organization that only a short time ago was convinced it was just one player, one piece away from making a deep run into the postseason, and one which just this past spring stated its intentions to return there again barely a year into the “rebuilding” process.
I would be weary that finishing in 9th or 10th place may serve to delude Flames management into thinking that the ship has been righted, and give Jay Feaster or whomever may be in charge down the road the green light to begin trading away the farm for so-called proven performers that will surely vault them back into the contender category, or in other words, the dreaded “win now” mentality that haunted so many Flames fans during and after Darryl Sutter’s tenure as general manager and put the team in its current predicament..
The future is bright in Edmonton… it’s just unclear when that promise is going to start paying out. Having collected a plethora of top selections in the NHL Draft over the years, the rebuild in Edmonton is taking longer than some would like. With manager Craig MacTavish and coach Dallas Eakins entering their first seasons with the club, is this finally the year the Oilers end their eight-year playoff drought? — Matt Brigidi
Forward depth when healthy: Finishing at the bottom of the league for nearly a decade has greatly helped the Oilers’ forward depth. There are few teams in the league that can count this much overall talent on their wings. Taylor Hall has quickly become the best left wing in the league and Nail Yakupov should follow on the other side. David Perron, Jordan Eberle, Ales Hemsky, and Linus Omark make up an incredibly skilled set of wings.
Goaltending: It seems strange to say, but now that Nikolai Khabibulin is gone, goaltending is actually a strength in Edmonton. Jason Labarbera is a solid backup to Devan Dubnyk who has steadily improved since becoming the starter in Edmonton. Dubnyk’s trail to bonafide starter has been a strange one and now that he’s finally established himself, he’s an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, so the comfort level with the goaltending may be short-lived. But prior to last season, the last time Edmonton had actual NHL goaltending was in 2008, so Oilers fans need to enjoy this.
Special Teams: The Oilers haven’t prevented shots particularly well while short-handed, but Dubnyk has been stellar in stopping pucks. They haven’t generated shots particularly well while up a man, but they’ve been stellar in finishing chances. The percentages might fall back to earth, but they’re bound to get better as their personnel grows up. If Dallas Eakins can have even the slightest positive impact, their special teams should continue to be an asset to the team.
Center Depth: If Nugent-Hopkins isn't ready to start the season the Oilers will be forced to move Taylor Hall to center (which is sounding more and more like what is going to happen) or go with Sam Gagner (once healthy), Boyd Gordon, and Anton Lander as their top three centres and with one of Mark Arcobello, Will Acton, or Andrew Miller (they have a combined one game of NHL experience) on the fourth line. Neither of these options is particularly great, and I think regardless of the combination you choose the result will be a lot of nights where the Oilers are overmatched.
Defensive Stability: How much will Ference improve the team over Ryan Whitney?We know that just subtracting Whitney will make for an improvement, but how far will it swing? I'm also interested to see how Grebeshkov adjusts to his NHL return and how Belov's game translates after being so highly regarded in Russia. There's a lot of depth on the back end, but a great many question marks as well. This area could make or break the season.
Organizational Depth: The Oilers haven’t done so well after the first round over the last five years and it’s starting to show throughout the organization. After all of the top end talent, the cupboard is mostly dry at forward and except for Devan Dubnyk, the Oilers have never had success with their own goaltenders. There is hope on defense with Oscar Klefbom, Martin Marincin and Darnell Nurse, but the Oilers need makeup seasons from a number of prospects.
The optimistic view is for the Oilers to be a playoff team in a wild card slot, as there is plenty of cannon fodder in the Central Division. The top three slots in the Pacific are pretty much spoken for by the Kings, Sharks and Canucks. However, the gap between the latter two teams and the Oilers is likely to be less enormous. If the Oilers stay in the race with Phoenix and Anaheim for the fourth spot in the Pacific, they should have a chance at crossing over to the Central.
Nugent-Hopkins doesn’t come back healthy or is re-injured, and Sam Gagner’s injury is long-term. There’s not nearly enough depth up the middle for this team to handle any sort of long-term injury to either player and should they suffer one, they’re likely to end up drafting in the bottom half of the top 10 again.
Sure, the Kings ran into the raw horsepower of the Chicago Blackhawks in last year’s Western Finals, denying them a chance to defend their 2012 Cup title. But Los Angeles returns their entire core in 2013-14 with only moderate tweaks, and Darryl Sutter’s bunch expects to use the same formula of strong puck possession and rock-solid defending to push deep into the Stanley Cup Playoffs yet again. — Travis Hughes
Defense: As long as Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov are on the team, defense will be LA’s cornerstone. They are young, fast, can handle the puck, and play a very strong game on both sides of the ice. Despite the loss of Rob Scuderi, the back-end is still going to be buoyed by a mix of grizzled vets and young puck movers. They have enough depth to figure out the right cast of characters that will enable LA to be among league leaders in denying shots once again.
Of course, some shots will get through, but the Kings also have Jonathan Quick. Quick looked like the best goaltender in the world after some post-surgery struggles during the regular season, and he’ll be crucial to the Kings’ success.
Puck possession: Quite simply, the Kings own the puck. They let other teams rent it briefly, but that puck belongs to LA. They use their great breakout to gain the neutral zone and carry that momentum through to the opponents' end. On top of that, they have a strong neutral zone defense that prevents the other team from entering the Kings zone with any ease, and in turn the Kings turn the puck back up ice.
The Kings’ forechecking ability causes huge headaches for other teams; they use their size and a strong forechecking system to retrieve the puck with regularity. Last year, the Kings had the best shot differential numbers of any team since the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings, and their top line of Brown-Kopitar-Williams was, along with Vancouver’s Sedin line, more effective at possessing the puck than any other combo in the NHL.
Special teams: Los Angeles was a top-ten team last season in both power play percentage (19.9%) and penalty kill percentage (83.3%). The penalty kill success was no surprise, as Los Angeles has consistently ranked among the best teams in the league when down a man over the past few years. The Kings’ top three centers are all huge PK assets, and Trevor Lewis has emerged as a shutdown forward since Darryl Sutter’s hiring. Plus, Quick.
What was a pleasant surprise was the power play. LA’s struggles with the man advantage were the source of great exasperation during 2011-12 (aside from those three PP goals in Game 6 of the Finals, of course). After some initial PP issues in 2013, things turned around, and eight straight games with power play goals helped the Kings a lot down the stretch. The back line of Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov, and Jake Muzzin excels at getting shots through to the net, while Richards and Jeff Carter were deadly in front of the net.
Finishing: Last year the Kings were plagued by mediocre percentages (i.e. save and shooting) despite having the best shot differential numbers in the league. They were a top ten team in both shots attempted and shots attempted against at even strength. Unfortunately, they had a hard time finishing and Jonathan Quick struggled in the regular season. The shooting has been a problem before; notably, the Kings’ abysmal shot percentage in 2011-12 nearly kept them out of the playoffs. Fortunately, Quick did enough to get them into the 8th seed, and the rest was history.
If they are able to keep their shot metrics high, the right mix of finishing ability, goaltending and luck will make L.A. a Cup contender. But poor shooting would sink their chances of finally winning the Pacific Division and lead to yet another tough playoff schedule.
Speed: The Kings are not slow, but they're not fast. The Chicago Blackhawks beat the Kings with speed in last year’s Western Conference Finals. Sure, some of that was because the Kings were simply worn down by that point (and had looked like a tired team for about a month and a half). But the Hawks enter the zone with control effortlessly, and it was obvious that the Kings do not have that same mindset for whatever reason. The Kings' relative lack of speed was no more apparent than when the Hawks were disrupting the LA breakout. The Kings, particularly Robyn Regehr, could not at all handle the quickness of the Hawks, and what is normally a strength (see above!) became a weakness. While Matt Frattin is an upgrade speed-wise over Dustin Penner, Toffoli is another non-speed demon, so this team isn’t going to be much faster than last year’s.
Forward depth: The Kings have five world-class forwards, with Brown and Kopitar (franchise cornerstones), Richards and Carter (the dynamic duo), and Williams (the elite possession forward). Not one other forward managed to even reach 20 points last year, and the left wings struggled all season behind Brown. The Kings’ struggles to score in the playoffs sunk their hopes of a repeat, and their bottom six again failed to contribute throughout the playoffs. We know Matt Frattin has the inside track to grab a spot on the left wing of Richards and Carter. That leaves last year’s cast of forwards to handle third and fourth line duties, along with contributions from new acquisition Dan Carcillo and Calder Trophy candidate Tyler Toffoli. If the Kings don’t get secondary scoring—or worse, if injuries occur and they have to use guys like Carcillo and Dwight King on the second line—they could be in trouble.
The Kings losses this offseason included an aging stay at home defenseman, an inconsistent pancake enthusiast, and a very pretty backup goalie. They have the pieces to win the Stanley Cup again, provided that Robyn Regehr, Matt Greene, and Willie Mitchell are able to play shutdown defense once more (or in Regehr’s case, ever), and Daniel Carcillo never touches the ice. Jake Muzzin improves upon last year, turning into a top pairing partner for Drew Doughty. Matt Frattin meanwhile fits in with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter (outside of chasing tail and general debauchery) and the offensive depth proves to be a strong point as well. Jonathan Quick wins the Vezina, Anze Kopitar wins the Selke, and Trevor Lewis makes the U.S. Olympic team. The Honda Center gets hit with a meteor (vastly improving the ice conditions), and the Sharks name Raffi Torres captain.
The Kings left wing situation becomes an incredibly ugly problem as Dwight King becomes the only viable option and he fails to step up to the challenge. Daniel Carcillo plays. The defense gets banged up and is forced to rely upon Keaton Ellerby and Jeff Schultz. Ben Scrivens isn’t nearly as cool as his Twitter account led us to believe and turns out to be a really awful goalie as Quick gets overworked. Shockingly, the non-California teams in the Pacific division don’t totally suck, and the Kings blow the last playoff spot after losing every game in the month of April (against the Coyotes, Sharks, Canucks, Flames, Oilers, and then Ducks). The game against Anaheim at Dodger Stadium falls apart at the eleventh hour because, as it turns out, the person in charge of the rink is from Minnesota and has no idea how ice is made unless it’s ball-crushingly cold outside. Alec Martinez gets traded for Douglas Murray and Jewels from the Crown gets too depressing to read. Darryl Sutter’s face finally swallows itself.
Ownership worries are finally behind the Coyotes and their fans, with at least five years of smooth road ahead of them. The off-ice issues never seemed to plague Don Maloney, who’s assembled competitive teams despite little resources, so it’s exciting to see what he and head coach Dave Tippett can do with actual support from the team’s new owners. Mike Ribeiro was the summer’s big acquisition, but it’s unclear how big of an impact he’ll have on an otherwise paltry offensive attack. Mike Smith hopes to rebound in goal, and a strong defensive core should help the Coyotes stay in contention in the Pacific. — Travis Hughes
The blueline: Phoenix’s rear-guard is deep. They have 10 defensemen in their system with NHL experience. In addition to being deep, the Yotes blue line contains one of the best all-around defensemen in the NHL, Oliver Ekman Larsson, and one of the best offensive defensemen in the league, Keith Yandle. The aforementioned depth doesn’t include former first round pick Brandon Gormley who is expected to see playing time at some point this season.
Head coach Dave Tippett: The veteran coach has maximized the strengths of his roster during most of his four seasons as the man in charge in Phoenix. His systems, as well as goalie coach Sean Burke’s instruction, have produced career numbers for netminders the team has employed during Tippett’s tenure. Last season was the first one where his squad didn’t exceed expectations. With a full training camp to evaluate his roster, the experienced bench boss will not hesitate to shake up his lineup if the Coyotes underperform out of the gate.
Ownership: For the previous four seasons, the team had been playing under a cloud of rumors, teases, and constant questions from family, friends, fans, and the media. This summer the club’s status, at least for the next five seasons, was settled when a group of investors bought the team from the NHL. For the first time since former owner Richard Burke brought the former Winnipeg Jets to Arizona, the team appears to have ownership that actually cares about the product. The new ownership group has already spoken about giving General Manager Don Maloney desperately needed resources and improving the team’s marketing. Most importantly, the off-ice distraction is now gone and the front office and players can focus all their energy onto the ice.
Lack of elite, skilled forwards: The franchise has been woefully short on skill up front since the days when two guys from Massachusetts roamed the ice in a basketball arena in Downtown Phoenix. Radim Vrbata has been the closest thing they’ve had to a sniper during Dave Tippett’s time in the Valley of the Sun. Mike Ribeiro’s offseason signing improves the forward skill level, but there are no elite goal scorers like a Steven Stamkos or John Tavares on the squad. The left wing position is of particular concern. The most NHL goals scored in a single season by any left sider on the current roster is the 20 tallies accrued by David Moss as a Calgary Flame during the 2008-09 season.
Power play: For the last decade the Coyotes power play has sat in the bottom third of the league. Last season, the team converted on 14.8 percent of their extra man chances ranking 25th in the NHL. The offseason acquisition of elite power play producer like Ribeiro should help, though there were similar expectations when the team signed Ray Whitney three seasons ago and real improvement never materialized. The team’s new assistant coach Newell Brown was hired, in part, to improve the team’s success with the man advantage. The lack of skill is a large component of the power play conversion problem, but the team has had issues with everything from zone entries to screening opposing goalies.
Penalty kill: The Desert Dogs PK has alternated between good and poor each season during Dave Tippett’s reign in the Valley. Last year it was poor at 79.9 percent, ranking 22nd in the NHL, If the pattern holds this year, the team’s play when down a man should be much improved. However, whether the pattern holds may depend on whether or not the Yotes can find a player to replace Boyd Gordon on the penalty kill. Gordon had been the team’s defensive specialist during his two years with the club. He took the majority of the faceoffs on the kill, blocked shots, and was rarely out of position. Antoine Vermette is the player most likely to take on Gordon’s role.
Mike Smith is able to replicate his success from the 2011-12 season, Mike Ribeiro remains the offensive juggernaut he’s always been, and the offense improves with his addition. A litany of young players up front and on the blue line gives the Coyotes a major influx of NHL-ready talent at some point this season. The combination of a healthy Mike Smith, a full training camp at Coach Dave Tippett’s disposal and the addition of Ribeiro, could send the Coyotes back to the Western Conference Final and beyond.
It’s déjà vu all over again and Mike Smith is unable to remain healthy and is marred by inconsistent performance when he is. Ribeiro tries his best, but the team’s power play sees no improvement. Mikkel Boedker is unable to take the next step in his career and remains just a 11-goal, 30-point player. The penalty kill does not improve, and the Coyotes complete the sweep of mediocre to poor special teams. Hard work and good systems help, but sometimes, you just need more skill.
After a four-game sweep in last year’s playoffs, many wondered if the window had closed for the Canucks, but with a coaching change and (finally) some clarity in the crease, Vancouver enters the 2013-14 season as poised as ever to compete for the Western Conference crown. The Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler, Alex Edler and Dan Hamhuis lead a team that’s still backed by Roberto Luongo, who despite recent turmoil is still a very good NHL goalie. The Canucks are deep and should contend yet again, with the impact of new coach John Tortorella the most intriguing storyline. — Travis Hughes
Goaltending: Roberto Luongo may have had his heart set on being dealt closer to Florida, but that is all over for now. Now he needs to focus on this team, which he will, and play his heart out in order to earn a spot as starting goaltender for Team Canada in Sochi. That will be a big motivator, as well as his professionalism and competitive nature in general. Who backs up Luongo is currently the big question. Eddie Lack may be that guy, and he’s a pretty solid goalie.
Depth on defense: This will play right into John Tortorella’s system. The big four are Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa, Jason Garrison and Alexander Edler. The fifth spot belongs to Chris Tanev, who is smaller but smart and steady. The sixth spot and beyond is open to Andrew Alberts, Frankie Corrado, Yannick Weber and maybe Yann Sauve.
The core remains: Bieksa, Hamhuis, Edler, Alberts, plus forwards like the Sedins, Ryan Kesler, Alexandre Burrows, Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen are pretty good and have been together a long time, including the 2011 run to the Final. It’s a core that seems tight and can still do a lot of damage. Now add in character guys like Brad Richardson, Mike Santorelli and whatever kids can crack the roster.
Players with question marks: Can David Booth stay healthy long enough to finally find some scoring touch with this team? When is Zack Kassian going to evolve into a more consistent physical force and put up some numbers? Can Higgins find his scoring touch back? He lost it last season. These are three key forwards that need to get it going in order for the Canucks to sustain any success. On defense, Edler had a tough season in 2012-13. Some projected him to have a career and hit Norris Trophy candidate status. Instead he had a season full of mistakes and did not put up the numbers many anticipated he would. It was frustrating to watch.
The injury bug: This kind of ties in with the first part. We already mentioned Booth. The biggest, most important player not a goaltender in Vancouver is Kesler, who has been riddled with injuries ever since he won the Selke Trophy in 2011. Kesler is the straw that stirs the drink. He can do it all. He can put up points, win faceoffs, be a stud defensively, get under opponent’s skin. Vancouver needs the healthy Kesler back.
Line chemistry: Who is going to play with the twins? Where does Booth fit in? Where does Kassian fit in? Is Higgins a top six or bottom six forward? There was a lot of line juggling from Alain Vigneault, and it often led to problems. Are we going to see more sustained line combinations and chemistry? Maybe John Tortorella can figure that one out.
It most certainly has to start with Tortorella, and hopefully his voice resonates where Vigneault’s rang hollow. If he can motivate a core that looked largely checked out during vast stretches of 2012 and 2013, it’ll put to rest the “wrong side of 30” arguments sprinkled throughout the roster. The Sedins will remain quite capable of driving the play for nearly 20 minutes per game and, at long last, will be spelled by a legitimate second line with a healthy Kesler and Booth joined by the underrated Burrows and creating a line that can give the opposition nightmares. Better yet, the young guns -- notably Kassian and Schroeder if not Gaunce -- finally show consistent smart play, allowing Tortorella to roll four strong lines. On the blueline, a reunited Bieksa and Hamhuis serve to shut down the poor souls who have to get the puck past them and Edler elevates his place to Norris-caliber. Roberto Luongo shuts up everybody in the Northern Hemisphere by winning some games on his own and rebounding from mistakes quickly. The Canucks won’t run away with the Pacific, but if they’re in sync they’ll cause headaches for the rest of the division and earn their playoff spot.
A similar refrain from recent seasons. First, the clown car of injuries rolls through the forwards for the zillionth time, obliterating already injury-prone vets and testing Vancouver’s depth. The Sedins and Kassian or Burrows struggle to carry the offense and the second line morphs into a revolving door of experimental goofiness and obligatory face-palming. As a result, offensive expectations shift to the third and fourth line units -- some of who are gainfully employed only due to a comical lack of cap space -- and suddenly Tortorella’s NY-style signature brand of “What’s that red light behind the net for?” hockey makes an encore appearance. The defense gets stretched to its limit as well, Edler’s perennial promise gives way to more highlight reel groaners, the Bieksa and Hamhuis pairing struggles against the best of the opposition and Tanev’s maturation flatlines. Finally, a poor October for Luongo leads to people openly asking about that Cory Schneider fella.
EA Sports picked the Blues to win the Stanley Cup this season, but they might be the only ones. The Central Division, Western Conference, and really, the entire NHL, are property of the Chicago Blackhawks until further notice. Their budding dynasty shows no signs of dying out, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see them hoist the Cup for the second year in a row. The rest of the division can only hope to keep up.
* Projected order of finish determined by panel of SB Nation hockey writers
When the Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010, they shipped nearly the entire roster out of town afterward, all victims of the salary cap crunch. That’s not the case this time, as Chicago will return most of their 2013 championship squad. Sure, Dave Bolland, Viktor Stalberg and Michael Frolik were among those who moved on this summer, but they’re negligible losses in the grand scheme of things. The Hawks are still deadly up-and-down their lineup and are clear favorites to come out of the West again. — Travis Hughes
Depth: The key to both of the Blackhawks Stanley Cup runs was their depth. They are able roll four lines a night which is a luxury most teams do not have. You have the star power at the top of the lineup with the likes of Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp. Throw in players such as Bryan Bickell, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw and Michal Handzus for some secondary production and you really have a dangerous squad. The Hawks have a core of really good young players looking to take over for the recent departures of Dave Bolland, Viktoe Stalberg and Michael Frolik. This is going to be the year for players such as Jeremy Morin, Ben Smith, Brandon Pirri and Jimmy Hayes finally get their shot at the NHL.
Defense: The Blackhawks are bringing back the exact same defensive core that gave up a league-low 97 goals in the regular season last year. The extra time from the lockout seemed to benefit Duncan Keith the most as he got his legs back and returned to his Norris Trophy winning form of 2010. Keith and Brent Seabrook, despite a subpar year out of Seabrook, remain one of the top pairings in the Western Conference. They both can skate a ton of minutes every night against their opponent’s top line. Niklas Hjalmarsson has developed into a pretty solid stay-at-home, shot blocking machine. He has formed a good second pair with Johnny Oduya. The young Nick Leddy, who can skate with the best of them, has improved his game over the last two years, and when Michal Rozsival, who was fantastic in the playoffs last year, is your sixth defenseman, things are looking pretty good for you.
Experience: Chicago brings back 17 players from last year’s Stanley Cup team, seven of whom were on the 2010 Cup team as well. There is nothing these guys haven’t seen. They came back from 3-1 down in the series with the Red Wings to win in overtime of Game 7. They played a three overtime game to start the Stanley Cup Final. They made many late game comebacks during their record-setting 24 game point streak to start the year. Even with some younger players on the roster this year, there is a enough veteran leadership on this team to keep them calm and focused through the ups and downs of the a NHL season.
The power play: Chicago is worse on the power play than at even strength. In the 2012 playoffs when the Hawks lost to the Coyotes in six games, the power play was a big reason, going 1-for-31 in the series. went a dismal 1-for-31 in the series. The struggles of the power play cost assistant coach Mike Haviland his job at the end of last season. Joel Quenneville brought in Jamie Kompon to take his place …. and the power play got even worse. It’s amazing that a team that has players like Toews, Kane, Sharp and Hossa on the roster can be so bad on the man advantage, but it’s just the way it is for this group.
Faceoffs: Trying to find the second line center has been harder for the ‘Hawks than the Chicago Cubs trying to find their replacement for Ron Santo at third base. Everyone from Kane, Bolland, Andrew Brunette, Sharp to Handzus has given it a shot over the last few seasons. Saad, who has never played center, got a good look during preseason. Toews is by far the best Hawk at the dot, winning nearly 60 percent of his faceoffs last year and Handzus did a pretty good job after coming over at the trade deadline, but there were simply too many goals scored on the Hawks a year ago off of winnable defensive zone draws.
High expectations: Kane is coming off a fantastic season that ended with him winning the Conn Smythe. Corey Crawford had his best season as a pro as was rewarded with a big contract extension. Bickell had an amazing playoff run that got him a big new deal as well. Will Kane strive to do even more this year and crack under the pressure of trying to be an elite player? Will Crawford and Bickell be able to live up to the expectations that come with the big money? Will the Blackhawks feel they just have to throw their sticks on the ice to win or will the work even harder than last season? We will have those answers after 82 games.
Everyone stays healthy and productive, the young players live up to their potential and the Blackhawks are the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions in 16 years. The Blackhawks are still the best team in the Western Conference, and when this team is running on all cylinders they are very hard to beat and will not lose in a seven game series. Some worry about the dreaded Stanley Cup “hangover” but the Hawks only played 71 games last season including playoffs, 11 less than they will play this regular season. If the Blackhawks can start producing on the power play, while remaining a top team on the penalty kill, this team could be downright lethal.
The Blackhawks get hit with an injury bug and fall apart under the pressure of being the reigning Cup champs. Toews and Seabrook have had concussion issues in the past, Hossa has a bad back and Sharp has had shoulder issues. Losing multiple players due to injury is the biggest fear going into the season. The Hawks are going to give some of their youngsters a full time shot at the NHL, and if they don’t get much production from the kids, they lose their biggest strength: team depth. Part of the reason why their stars are so good is because they know they don’t have to do all of the work night in and night out. The Blackhawks now play in probably the NHL’s weakest division thanks to realignment, and absolutely everything would have to go wrong in order for the Hawks to miss the playoffs this year. How far they go in the postseason will depend mainly on their health come playoff time.
The Avs move into the future with some help from the past. Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy re-join the organization, and are responsible for shaping a young roster that finished in last place in the Western Conference last season. The lone benefit of such a dismal showing was the acquisition of the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, which Sakic & Co. used on Halifax forward Nathan MacKinnon, who joins the likes of captain Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly. The future in Colorado seems bright, but how quickly will the sun rise? — Matt Brigidi
Speed: The Avalanche will be the fastest team in the league. Yes, that’s a lofty statement, but it’s also hard to argue. Duchene and MacKinnon are already recognized as two of the fastest forwards in the NHL. Paul Stastny, Landeskog, O’Reilly and PA Parenteau can get the jump on the opposition. On defense, the team has Erik Johnson, Tyson Barrie, Stefan Elliott and Matt Hunwick, all of whom have wheels. The team transitions as quickly as anybody. Roy has stated he’s basing his coaching strategies on that speed and promises that it will be one of the team’s greatest assets. It will make for exciting games and a very upbeat tempo.
Forward depth: Colorado has three pure scoring lines. By pushing the offense in waves, opposing coaches will have a tough time creating the right matchups. Teams putting their top lines out against the Duchene line will then have to worry about containing Stastny’s line. Shut down both of those lines, and you’ve still got MacKinnon’s line to face. The fourth line is more akin to the typical checking line than a journeyman line and can also register points. Even if injuries hit, there is a wealth of talent in the farm teams to replenish the forward corps. The guys up front will cause fits for other teams.
Experience: The team has a fantastic balance of youth and veteran leadership. The energy, optimism and dedication to improvement found in the younger players is complemented by guys who know what it takes to reach the highest levels of success in the NHL. It’s a relationship that Roy plans to exploit. He’s stated that the team will be extremely well-conditioned, and constant self-evaluation is to be expected. He’s also made it clear that he is going to rely on his vets to help the younger players learn what having “a Stanley Cup attitude” really means. Moreover, some of the vets — Paul Stastny, for instance — are still in the prime of their careers, bringing both youth and leadership to the team in one package.
Defense: The Avs were horrific in goals against last season and even worse, unfortunately, in defensive scoring. The team needs a true top pairing. With question marks still looming around Johnson and offseason acquisitions that are middling, at best, there’s little expectation we’ll see a significant improvement on the blueline this season. A decent defense is not out of the realm of possibility and if Barrie continues where he left off and Elliott makes that leap, the Avs may see a push in scoring. The blueline is going to be a weak point for Colorado no matter what, though.
Goaltending: The problem with Avalanche goaltending isn’t skill, it’s uncertainty. The team gave up quite a lot to acquire Semyon Varlamov, and the Russian is expected to be the long-term solution in net for Colorado, but he’s been far too inconsistent in his play. He clearly has the ability to be an elite goaltender; the question is whether or not he’ll reach that potential. With the hiring of Francois Allaire, Varly now has a successful goalie coach, one who is credited with making both Roy and Avs’ back up JS Giguere successes. If Allaire can do with Varly what he did with them, the deficiencies in the defense will be irrelevant. If Varlamov doesn’t pan out, the team does have a deep pool of goaltending prospects at its disposal, not to mention a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe winning back up in Jiggy. However, those safety nets will do nothing to help the team this season. Without improved play by Varly, the Avs will be a lottery team once again.
Inconsistency: A common theme in the Avalanche locker room the past three seasons was allowing wins and losses to affect the team too much. Wins made the team too confident, which led to losing games in the final minutes, and losses made the team too insecure, which created extended losing streaks. This is something that Roy has already identified as an issue that needs to be addressed. He wants to teach the team “how to win” so that these highs and lows balance out. Another aspect that needs to balance out is special teams. The penalty kill was tops in the league at home while in the basement on the road. The power play was the league’s worst at home, but it managed a middling spot on the road. The vast discrepancies are troubling, and so is the fact that the power play success rates are counterintuitive. If the coaching staff can make the team more consistent in both of these areas, the Avs are sure to be more successful. It’s a decent-sized “if” though.
No one is going to pretend that the Avalanche are a contender for the Stanley Cup. In fact, just making it into the playoffs will satisfy a lot of fans. However, the team has more talent than people realize, and the new blood behind the bench is already paying dividends. Players have publicly stated that they have newfound energy, excitement and expectations with the team. Between Roy’s coaching and the power of the forward corps, this team has a chance at being a nightly threat this season. If Varlamov plays at the level he’s capable of playing, and the defense develops stability, the Avalanche could very well find themselves in the second round of the playoffs.
It’s concievable that the Avs pick first overall again next June. If the defense repeats last season’s performance, significant improvements don’t happen with special teams, and Varlamov fails to achieve his potential, we could easily see an Avalanche team living in the basement of the league for yet another year. Many pundits are already inking the Avs into 29th or 30th. Fans want to believe it’s not possible. Unfortunately, it is.
The Stars have a new kelly green look, a new head coach and a new general manager, but are they still just a playoff bubble team at best? Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley and rookie Valeri Nichushkin should help add to the team’s offensive depth with Jamie Benn and Ray Whitney, but with little change to one of the league’s worst defenses, a lot of burden will be placed on the shoulders of goaltender Kari Lehtonen. 2013-14 has the feel of a transition year for the Stars, who will need a lot of luck to crack the postseason. — Travis Hughes
Coaching experience: Just two seasons ago the Stars had one year of NHL coaching experience between Glen Gulutzan, Paul Jerard and Willie Desjardins. Now compare that with Lindy Ruff’s 571 wins and a Jack Adams award, defensive assistant James Patrick’s 21-year NHL career and seven years of NHL coaching experience, and Curt Fraser, a veteran of the Red Wings’ farm system. It’s a difference Stars owner Tom Gaglardi feels will have a significant impact. Throw in the experience Jim Nill brings from Detroit and it’s a smart group calling the shots moving forward.
Young potential: Winger Alex Chiasson scored six goals in seven NHL games to finish the season last year and first-round pick Valeri Nichushkin dazzled in camp and preseason. The two make up Dallas’ hope on the right side this year and could represent cheap offense to supplement Seguin, Jamie Benn and Ray Whitney. Additionally, 6’7 defenseman Jamie Oleksiak appears NHL ready, and injuries may necessitate his presence.
Center depth: The 2008 Stars team that went to the conference finals boasted Brad Richards, Mike Ribeiro and Mike Modano down the middle. Ever since there’s been instability at the position in every level of the organization, culminating in Benn’s conversion to center. With Seguin, Peverley, Shawn Horcoff, Cody Eakin and Vern Fiddler in the fold, and promising first-rounder Radek Faksa waiting in the wings, the Stars feel they’ve solidified the position.
Age at key positions: By the time the playoffs arrive, the Stars will be relying on Whitney (41), Stephane Robidas (37), Sergei Gonchar (40), Erik Cole (36) and Horcoff (35) to play top defensive minutes and top-six roles. What they have left and its sustainability over the course of 82 games is an area of at least some concern.
Defensive depth: The Stars bring most of a defense back that allowed 31 shots per night last season, swapping out only Philip Larsen for Gonchar. He’ll help on the power play, but what of the back end? Brenden Dillon and Robidas will be leaned upon heavily once more. Benn, Oleksiak, Aaron Rome and Kevin Connauton will all jockey for bottom pairing spots while Alex Goligoski tries to live up to expectations. New coaching could help, but there may not have been enough off-season change on this front.
Risk: What if Cole cannot regain his 2011 form? What if Whitney finally breaks down? What if Gonchar is finished? What if Nichushkin isn’t NHL ready? What if Chiasson’s six goals last year were an aberration? What if Dan Ellis proves no more capable than Richard Bachman and Cristopher Nilstorp last year? What if Lehtonen fades in March again? What if Eakin and Horcoff cannot be effective second-line centers? The long term rebuild looks good, but in this particular season there is as much potential for failure as there is for success in Dallas.
The lack of significant roster turnover on a defense that allowed over 31 shots and 2.94 goals per game last season is helped enough by a new coaching staff to keep the team competitive. Lehtonen extends his usual first-half dominance into what's been a troublesome month of March, and elder statesmen Whitney and Gonchar stay healthy. Rookies Nichushkin and Chiasson find a way to contribute offensively to create balance and take pressure off of Benn and Seguin to carry the team. The Oilers and Coyotes struggle in the Pacific, giving Dallas a chance to sneak into the postseason as the fourth-place Central team.
Gonchar is no longer effective, Whitney starts breaking down, and Nichushkin is not ready at the age of 18. The Stars struggle to create offense and are completely shut down on the road as teams need only focus on Benn and Seguin. Lehtonen wears down early again, or worse, due to workload behind a once again porous defense, and the Stars have Ellis problems as they miss the playoffs for the sixth straight season.
The Wild were a middle-of-the-road team in just about every category last season: 16th in goals against, 22nd in goals for, 16th on the power play, 18th on the penalty kill and a 15th overall in the league-wide standings. They were a playoff team after 48 games, but nobody knows if that would’ve been the case in a full 82-game season. Where do they sit in 2013-14? The defense shapes up nicely, but overall Minnesota has a young roster with a lot of question marks. — Travis Hughes
Defense: After years of struggling on the blue line, last season was a breath of fresh air for the Wild. The first pairing of Norris Trophy runner-up Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin, a 19-year-old defenseman who received more Calder votes than any other rookie defenseman, stood out as one of the best defensive pairings the Wild have ever had. Jared Spurgeon has consistently held down the anchor position of the second pairing, and has been a staple on special teams since joining the team as an undrafted player in 2010. Coupled with NHL veteran Keith Ballard and up-and-comers Marco Scandella and Matt Dumba, the Wild have an extremely competitive d-corps.
Overall depth: Look at the elite teams around the NHL. You can have talent, but if that talent isn’t supported by depth, you become an easy team to defend against. For years, the Wild have been an easy team to defend against, but entering 2013-14, they have depth at just about every position. Matt Cooke’s addition helps on the left side, Koivu and Granlund are solid in the middle of the ice, Pominville and Heatley are a one-two punch on the right side, and we already talked about the defense.
Strong core: The Wild possess a strong core of highly skilled players and leaders. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed 13 year contracts with the team, Mikko Koivu has been with the team since he was drafted in 2001, and goalie Niklas Backstrom has been with the team since 2006. Jason Pominville has been in contract talks with the Wild, and has gone on record stating that he wants a long term deal in Minnesota.
Power play: The Wild possess one of the league’s worst power plays on home ice, clocking in last season at just a 13.2 percent conversion rate, good for 28th in the NHL. At the same time, they were second in the league while on the road, converting 23.5 percent of the time. The lack of consistency is concerning, and the power play is one of their biggest concerns coming into this season. The Wild have settled on using retired NHLer Andrew Brunette as power play coach, and they hope the move helps balance out the starling home vs. road split.
Puck possession: The Wild have been a bad possession team for years, but Mike Yeo is stressing change in that department, claiming that his team will transition into one that utilizes puck-control versus rather than play a dump-and-chase style. They improved in this department during the shortened season, ultimately finishing 16th in the NHL in Fenwick percentage versus back-to-back 30th place finishes in 2010-11 and 2011-12. Will that improvement stick?
Lack of experience: Brodin, Granlund, Niederreitter, Dumba, Coyle, Zucker and Haula are all under the age of 22. Sure, Brodin was a Calder Trophy candidate a year ago and Granlund is a top-two center on this Wild team, but Yeo is asking the world of a lot of very young players. There’s a chance -- perhaps even a likelihood -- that even the best of this young group experiences growing pains this season, and the team will suffer as a result.
The excellent blue line holds steady all season, and the kids succeed in living up to the roles they’ve been asking to play. A deeper roster helps considerably as well. Elsewhere, the St. Louis Blues fail to live up to the expectations that most people have for them, and the Wild finish second in the Central Division behind Chicago. A solid first-round performance and a second-round exit in the playoffs would be considered a great season.
The young kids can’t live up to expectations, and the Wild find themselves behind Dallas and Nashville for fifth place in the Central, and the postseason begins with Minnesota on the couch. Mike Yeo is fired and any progress made by the young kids goes out the window with him.
The 2013 season felt like the early, just-out-of-expansion days for the Nashville Predators, who stumbled to a 14th place finish in the Western Conference and just their second spring without postseason hockey since the 2004-05 lockout. But with that ugly finish came the promise of a top draft pick, and Seth Jones enters the spotlight in Nashville where he’s expected to become just the next in a long line of great Preds defensemen. He’s surrounded by mentors on a strong blueline, and Pekka Rinne remains one of the games top netminders, but does Nashville have the scoring talent to get back into the postseason? — Travis Hughes
Team-first attitude: From the top line forward to the bottom-pairing defenseman, Barry Trotz has always demanded (and usually received) a commitment to defensive principles that has traditionally allowed the Predators to hang in there with just about any opponent. Even as the team spiraled downward through the standings last season to a 27th-overall finish, there were no reports of dissension within the dressing room, and instead of changing course this summer, the organization doubled down on “Predator Hockey” by opting to extend multi-year contracts to depth players such as Matt Hendricks and Eric Nystrom, placing a premium on the grit that they will bring to the lineup.
Talent on defense: Nobody drafts and develops defensemen like the Predators, and this season it looks like their entire group will consist of homegrown products. From Shea Weber, who should contend for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top blueliner, all the way down to No. 4 overall draft pick Seth Jones, the team’s attack will usually receive a jump-start from the back end. Look for 2013 IIHF World Championships MVP Roman Josi to continue growing into his role as a puck-rushing dynamo on the left side, and expect a breakout season from Ryan Ellis, who has split duties between Nashville and the Preds’ AHL affiliate in Milwaukee the last two seasons. While smallish by NHL standards, Ellis boasts tremendous puck-possession skills and should benefit from the counsel of new assistant coach Phil Housley.
Goaltending: Pekka Rinne has put together an impressive resume over the last three seasons, ranking 3rd in the NHL for shutouts and total save percentage from the 2011-12 season to the present. His glove hand has been hailed as the place where goal scorers’ dreams go to die, and Rinne manages to deliver quantity along with quality, typically placing among the leading goaltenders in games played. With the big Finn behind them, the Predators have a shot to win any game.
Goal scoring: There isn’t a single proven top-line forward on the roster, a weakness that could be exposed against strong defensive teams within the Central Division like Chicago and St. Louis. There is hope that incoming free agent Viktor Stalberg can grow into a leading scoring threat, and Colin Wilson enjoyed a strong 25-game run last season before suffering a shoulder injury, but neither has established himself as the type of player opponents need to plan their game around.
A baby blueline: The defense is talented, but several players are in the earliest stages of their NHL careers, so there will growing pains. There is a distinct lack of physical aggressiveness once you get past Weber on the depth chart, and penalty killing could be a particular area of concern following the team’s buyout of veteran Hal Gill. The PK has usually been one of Nashville’s greatest strengths, but last season the penalty killers finished 29th.
Goaltending depth: With Rinne bouncing back from off-season hip surgery, the backup role has been handed to Carter Hutton, who has exactly 1 game of NHL experience. Magnus Hellberg is a well-respected prospect working his way up through the system, but is expected to be the No. 1 starter for the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals this season. The wild card is Nashville’s goaltending coach Mitch Korn, who has coaxed career-best seasons out of goalies such as Chris Mason and Dan Ellis in the past. The Preds may rely on him to pull off one more magic act if Rinne can’t handle his typical workload.
Jones enjoys a productive rookie season, Rinne shoulders a heavy workload, and the forwards score just enough to lift the Predators back into the playoffs for the eighth time in ten seasons. While no single player stands out as an offensive leader, Nashville seizes the advantage against other teams’ 3rd- and 4th-line forwards to produce a winning season.
Rinne’s hips hinder him in the early going, and there’s no safety net behind the kids on defense. Given the lack of high-end talent up front, the margin for error is razor-thin with this team, and despite all the hard work they could find themselves on the wrong end of a lot of 3-2 and 2-1 games.
Games get tighter and more defensive in the playoffs, which you think would be a serious advantage for the St. Louis Blues, one of the NHL’s top defensive teams. But coming off a year in which they were considered Cup favorites by many, the Blues’ biggest question remains how they’ll score their goals. St. Louis is undoubtedly a playoff team in the Central Division, but their scoring-by-committee approach failed them in the postseason a year ago. Will it again? — Travis Hughes
Defensive depth: You might’ve heard about a little signing that the Blues just finalized: Alex Pietrangelo to a seven-year contract at $6.5 million a year. Last season was an off year for Petro thanks to the shortened schedule, but once Jay Bouwmeester was added to the fold before the trade deadline, he looked like his old self again. The rest of the defense isn’t anything to scoff at, either. Kevin Shattenkirk, Bouwmeester, Jordan Leopold, Roman Polak and Barret Jackman round out a crew that allowed just 2.38 goals a game last season, and a miniscule 1.89 the year before. Factor in goaltending that should be more solid than last year barring injury and the Blues will be a tough nut to crack.
Coaching: This season Ken Hitchcock has the benefit of a full training camp with the team. Last season, the shortened year led to an abbreviated camp, and the season before he replaced coach Davis Payne. Hitchcock is a Jack Adams Award winner with the Blues as well as a Stanley Cup champion in 1999 with the Dallas Stars. The Blues have responded to Hitch better than any coach since Joel Quenneville, and when you hear Stanley Cup talk whispered tentatively around St. Louis, Ken Hitchcock is part of the conversation.
Tenacity: If you’re afraid of hard-hitting hockey, the Blues aren’t for you. Captain David Backes won’t shy away from board battles and the big hit to make a statement. It’s an Olympic year to boot, so Canadian captains of the opposition probably need to hang on to their helmets. Backes had 62 penalty minutes in 48 games last year, and in 2008-09 had 31 goals to go with his 165 PIM. Last season’s leading goal scorer, Chris Stewart, isn’t afraid of a fight, and big bodied Roman Polak will rough you up on the way to the net.
Scoring: The Blues scored just 2.58 goals a game last season, good for 17th in the league. In 2011-12 they were 21st overall with 2.51 goals per game. Tight, low-scoring games are a fixture for this Blues team, which cause fans of other squads to complain that they play “boring hockey.” Blues fans know better, though. It doesn’t matter how you win … as long as you win.
Power play: Most of those wins came without a power-play goal. After starting off last season clicking on all levels, the attack went anemic and the Blues finished the season at 19.5 percent -- 12th in the league, but certainly only lifted that high thanks to the hot start. It’s no coincidence that the power play’s drop coincided with a swan dive that could have killed the season for the Blues last year.
Over-tenacity: MSometimes the Blues get frustrated. Sometimes they get too frustrated. You won’t like them when they’re angry, either because they’re big and bruising or because they take stupid penalties and overreact to setbacks. Sometimes the best way to get revenge for falling behind the eight-ball is to score and win; occasionally the Blues will decide that a better idea would be to plow through the opposition. The outcome, well … the outcome isn’t always good.
There is serious talk about the Blues contending for the Stanley Cup this season, with EA Sports going as far as saying they’ll win the thing. For any team, this is the best case scenario. For the Blues? It’s turning into the only acceptable one.
Second verse, same as the first -- the Blues could wind up getting knocked out in the first two rounds again thanks to their inability to score. While their first-round loss to the Kings was viewed by most hockey fans as one of the best series of the playoffs, the Blues would have won handily if they could have found some firepower. Instead, they gripped the sticks too tight and couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn, forcing them to the links instead.
Winnipeg benefits the most from realignment on the travel front, but it leaves the cozy confines of the Southeast Division for the Central, where Cup contenders from St. Louis and Chicago reside. Their top line, now locked in with long-term contracts, is strong, and they’ve added some depth with Devin Setoguchi and Michael Frolik. Defensively the Jets return a strong core, but their special teams and goaltending aren’t much improved and could keep them from the playoffs yet again. — Travis Hughes
Fresh faces: While the Jets have continued to inch closer to a playoff berth with each passing year, team management hopes they’ve pushed the roster over the plateau line by adding Setoguchi and Frolik to bolster their depth at forward. As Winnipeg has been inconsistent generating scoring from all areas aside their first line, fans are hopeful that both these acquisitions aid in filling the net.
Ladd-Little-Wheeler reunited: Uncertain was the best way to describe how the Jets’ roster would shake out heading into August, as a plethora of players went to arbitration hearings. Fortunately, Kevin Cheveldayoff was able to lock up each restricted free agent before his day in court became a reality. Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler, who form two thirds of Winnipeg’s top line, are now locked up for the foreseeable future. Management is hopeful that a degree of familiarity in the lineup will help take this team where it needs to go.
Team defense: Over the past two seasons, Winnipeg has ranked in the middle of the pack as it relates to team metrics such as Fenwick. The trio of Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian will headline the defensive corps while players like Paul Postma and Grant Clitsome vie for a larger role on the back-end. The Jets possess a boatload of offensive rearguards who figure to continue propping up a group of deficient scoring forwards.
Goaltending: It’s been discussed ad nauseam, but since arriving in Winnipeg, the Jets have struggled with inconsistent goaltending performances. Ondrej Pavelec has garnered far too much ice time each of the past two seasons, and Al Montoya hasn’t been able to stay healthy enough to push Pavelec in competition. Should current trends continue, Winnipeg will face great difficulty in its new division among Western Conference foes and the goaltending will do little to help.
Special teams: The 30th-ranked power play and 24th-ranked penalty kill were a large hindrance for the Jets’ playoff hopes last year. Perry Pearn will be in charge of both units again this year, and with some tinkering of his personnel, hopes to see marked improvement in both areas. Having said that, the man advantage runs almost solely through Byfuglien, a gameplan that many teams around the league have started to key in on. It is imperative that Pearn be able to find new and creative ways to get him into open space. When down a man, Pavelec’s spotty .844 save percentage hasn’t been up to snuff. If the goaltender is supposed to be the best penalty killer, this certainly hasn’t been the case in Winnipeg.
Depth at center: Olli Jokinen is coming off an abysmal season in terms of offensive production, and it is unclear whether or not the 34-year-old Finn will be able to recapture some of the glory he displayed as a member of the Calgary Flames. Failing that, the onus will fall squarely on the shoulders of unproven rookie Mark Scheifele, who will be given every opportunity to succeed as the team’s de-facto second line center. Should Scheifele require more seasoning in the AHL, there aren’t many other options at the position, as Nik Antropov and Kyle Wellwood were both overlooked in free agency.
The Jets get off to a hot start, which sets the table for a playoff race down the back stretch. Evander Kane leads the team in scoring while Andrew Ladd, Little and Wheeler continue their offensive production from last season. Jokinen bounces back from a weak 2013 campaign and Scheifele proves that he is able to not only hang, but contribute at the NHL level. The team’s blue line is able to avoid injury and Pavelec plays closer to league averages as the Jets clinch the fourth and final playoff spot in the Central, narrowly beating out the fifth-best team in the Pacific Division.
Setoguchi busts and Winnipeg continues to search for secondary scoring. Scheifele collapses upon himself like a fallen star and is demoted to the AHL. Winnipeg’s special teams units remain among the NHL’s worst and injuries ravage the team at key offensive positions. Noel is fired as the team battles to stay above the draft lottery line. The Jets cling to the .500 line and are booed mercilessly night after night by fans who feel they deserve better.
It's been a while, and you might have forgotten, but realignment is here in the NHL.
The NHL approved the long-awaited realignment plan in March after more than a year of discussion with the players. Not only do the divisions have a new look (and one new name), but the playoff format has been tweaked, in a nod to the old-school NHL divisional playoff format.
It's all a little complicated, though, and you're probably a bit confused, so let's figure this out together.
First, the new divisional setup. There was a lot of talk two years ago that the NHL would abandon the two-conference format and move to four "conferences," but that's not really what's happening. The Eastern Conference and the Western Conference still exist, but the playoffs won't be determined by taking the best eight teams in each conference anymore. Instead, the top three teams in each division -- the Metropolitan, Atlantic, Pacific and Central -- will qualify for the postseason, and the final spots in the postseason will be determined in a "wild card" format.
Here are the new divisions...
Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Toronto
Contrary to what you're thinking after glancing at the map, teams like Florida and Tampa Bay could benefit -- both short- and long-term -- from these changes. As the Panthers and (to a lesser extent) the Lightning struggle to field quality teams, being placed in a division with teams like Boston, Detroit, Toronto, Montreal, and even Buffalo should help them immensely at the gate. Just look at this video of a Habs vs. Panthers game in Sunrise back in 2009.
No, it's not always fun to welcome thousands of fans of the opponent, but it beats playing in front of a bunch of empty seats because no one in the area cares about a Panthers vs. Hurricanes or whoever game. There's always the hope playing with great, historic franchises makes them a better one, too.
The Canadian franchises in the East are in one division, which is definitely a good thing. Also nice is the fact that you have old rivals Detroit and Toronto back together, and Detroit and Boston should crank up a very nice rivalry.
Carolina, Columbus, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington
Six of these teams just seem to belong together, and they've belonged together since the old Patrick Division was dissolved in 1993. To finish off the division, the NHL brought in Carolina and Columbus from the Island of Misfit Hockey Teams.
The Blue Jackets should do well with this grouping. They'll develop rivalries with the Pennsylvania teams, as well as the Capitals, and they won't have to deal with regular trips to the West Coast. And we're huge fans of getting the Capitals in a division with the Rangers, Islanders, Devils, Flyers, and Penguins once again. That's a big-time win for the NHL, and old school Caps fans finally have their original rivals back.
This division name is dumb. It probably comes from the New York connections, which make up 35 percent or whatever of the division, but I mean, nothing says "Metropolitan" like Tobacco Road.
Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, Winnipeg
Love this division. Chicago, St. Louis, and Minnesota are all old rivals from the Norris Division days, and getting Minnesota and Dallas in the same division makes sense. That would be why it took a dozen years of the Wild being around to finally make it happen. The NHL seems to be a bit slow on things that make perfect sense.
So many of these teams were miscast in the old alignment. Minnesota and Colorado were with the Canucks, Flames, and Oilers. Dallas was in the old Pacific Division, where the closest rival was Phoenix. Winnipeg got stuck in the Southeast Division after the franchise moved from Atlanta. They loved seeing Alex Ovechkin a few times per season and all, but Jets fans will really like the regular trips to (especially) Minnesota and Chicago.
Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver
Another rock-solid geographic pairing. It's even one that could survive a franchise relocation. You know, when the Coyotes move to Seattle in five years. (Just kidding, Phoenix fans, but this division would live through inevitable NHL expansion to the Emerald City as well.)
Anyway, it keeps the California rivalries intact, and it's safe to say Los Angeles and San Jose will be quite enjoyable to watch after their playoff battle last spring. We're sure the Canucks are thrilled to be paired up with the Kings and their deadly Twitter account, too.
The Oilers, Flames, and Canucks all belong together, and the Coyotes don't fit anywhere else. Actually, it should help Phoenix quite a bit to have the southern California teams for proximity and the Canadian teams to get the snowbirds interested, much like the situation in Florida.
As we mentioned before, the top three teams will make the postseason in each division, giving us six per conference. The final teams will be determined via a wild card format, with the top two remaining teams in each conference qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Let's use an example. Assume that these are the final standings in the West:
|1||Los Angeles Kings||104||Chicago Blackhawks||109|
|2||Vancouver Canucks||100||St. Louis Blues||99|
|3||San Jose Sharks||98||Minnesota Wild||92|
|4||Phoenix Coyotes||87||Nashville Predators||90|
|5||Edmonton Oilers||84||Winnipeg Jets||88|
|6||Anaheim Ducks||82||Dallas Stars||82|
|7||Calgary Flames||12||Colorado Avalanche||13|
In the Pacific, the Kings, Canucks and Sharks would qualify for the playoffs automatically, while in the Central, the Blackhawks, Blues and Wild would qualify automatically. The remaining two spots would go to the Predators with 90 points and the Jets with 88 points, leaving the Coyotes out with 87 points -- even though Phoenix finished fourth in the Pacific and Winnipeg finished fifth in the Central. Got it?
So, we have our eight teams but who plays who in the first round? The seeding takes on a divisional format, with the No. 1 seeds facing the Wild Card teams and No. 2 playing No. 3 in the first round. (We're guessing the NHL will call Round 1 the "Divisional Semifinals" by the way.)
Back to our example. No 1. Chicago (109) has more points than No. 1 Los Angeles (104), so they'll get the easier matchup, facing the Jets (88), the wild card team with the fewest points. The Kings would then face Nashville (90), the better of the two wild card teams, in the first round. The No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in each division will always play one another.
Basically, all you need to remember for the first round is that the better of the No. 1 seeds will get to play the lesser of the wild card teams.
No. 1 Chicago vs. No. 5 Winnipeg
No. 2 St. Louis vs. No. 3 Minnesota
No. 1 Los Angeles vs. No. 4 Nashville
No. 2 Vancouver vs. No. 3 San Jose
Round 2 -- we're guessing it'll be called the "Divisional Finals" -- will be completely different from the old system in that teams will remain within their original bracket. Previously, the top team in the West would have played the worst-remaining team in Round 2, but that's not the case any longer.
Using our example (and assuming top seeds win in Round 1), Chicago and St. Louis would advance to face off in the second round. On the other side, Los Angeles and Vancouver would go head-to-head in Round 2. Second round match ups have the chance to be considerably more competitive in this new format.
Round 2 winners advance to the Western Conference Final and Eastern Conference Final, and from there the playoff format is the same as it's ever been. It's still West vs. East in a battle for the Stanley Cup.
The NHL makes tweaks to its rulebook every year, and 2013-14 is no different.
Which league rule changes will you notice? If you're a more casual NHL fan, these changes might not be anything you notice without having them pointed out by television commentators or internet nerds (hi!). If you're a hardcore hockey zealot, you're aware of at least some of these changes, and you've probably already let your feelings about them be known, one way or the other. Let's get up to speed.
What's important here? The fact that the opening that your favorite team has to protect is the same size as it's been. The bottom depth of the goal frame, however, is now 40 inches as opposed to 44 inches. The side radius has gone from 20 inches to 18. Total width of the bottom of the frame is now 88 inches, instead of 96.
This isn't a merely cosmetic change. It's about creating more space behind the net, which I guess we'll have to wait and see the impact of. Perhaps players can take advantage of that small amount of extra room and make more plays.
At least one player -- Columbus' Nick Foligno -- thinks the new nets look bigger. Combined with the next change we'll outline, that could be a significant development. Unless the goalies somehow manage to look even bigger.
Instead of trying to explain the intricacies of this rule, I'll just let NHL.com lay it out with the use examples.
The previous rule, instituted prior to the 2010-11 season, was that a goalie's leg pads could not go higher on his leg than 55 percent of the distance between the center of his knee and his pelvis. So if a goalie's upper-leg measurement was 20 inches, which is roughly the average number in the NHL, the pad could not go higher than 11 inches above the center of his knee.
That number will now be 45 percent, so the same goalie will be able to wear a pad that goes no higher than 9 inches above his knee.
When it comes to closing the five hole, losing approximately 2 inches off each leg pad could result in 4 inches less coverage, depending on the style of the goaltender.
I guess this means that we'll be hearing about Corey Crawford's five-hole, instead of his glove hand, right?
In all seriousness, this probably isn't a major deal. You'll hear some goalies talk about how it doesn't matter at all, and others will probably whine that it's completely ruined their ability to stop the puck. Goalies are weird.
Keep in mind that former goalie Kay Whitmore works with the NHL on these matters, so it's not like the league didn't consult with someone who knows a thing or two about the position before going forward with this change.
While the rule regarding instigating a fight with a face shield was gassed, the league added a new wrinkle to fighting rules: Any player who takes off his helmet before a fight will get a two-minute minor for unsportsmanlike conduct.
The NHL has kind of gone the way of the NFL with the new uniform policy, and one of its biggest stars isn't happy about it.
The league has decided to enforce rules that have been on the books since 1964 that prevent players from tucking in their jerseys. Guys like Alex Ovechkin think it takes the individuality away from the players, while others see the change as a precursor to advertisements on the tails of jerseys.
The graphic at right breaks everything down in detail, but here are the basics: Pads must not be exposed in any way, jerseys are not to be tucked in, and breezers are not to be cut or torn, something some players were doing to help with performance. Warnings are given out on a first offense. If players do not adhere following the warning, they'll be given a two-minute penalty for delay of game. Third and fourth offenses are punishable by a 10-minute misconduct and a game misconduct, respectively.
Some refs could wind up in an awkward position here...
The NHL Players' Association maintains final say on the league's icing rule, following an experiment with hybrid icing in the preseason.
Currently, the NHL uses touch icing, which is
stupid controversial. There have been some catastrophic injuries from races to the icing line to try to touch the puck first. Think about Kurtis Foster, Taylor Fedun, and most recently Carolina defenseman Joni Pitkanen, who will miss the entire 2013-14 season after breaking his heel racing for an icing call last year.
Hybrid icing keeps the concept of a race to the icing line, but it moves that line up to the faceoff dots, making for a much safer situation for players. Hybrid icing has been in college hockey for some time now, and while many around the game were skeptical when it was first implemented, reviews have been largely positive.
It's not known at this point how the players will vote. Reviews are decidedly mixed, and while it seems obvious this would be an improvement over touch icing, the opinions of the players are what count most.
Statistics for measuring NHL performance have continuously evolved over the years. From plus/minus to ice time to faceoff wins, the NHL has worked hard to develop new ways to record what happens on the ice.
In 2005-06, they added a new set of statistics, including hits, giveaways, takeaways, and blocked shots. Collectively, these statistics might paint a picture of who is driving play, who is helping keep the puck away from their net and headed towards the other team's end.
The problem is that those stats just aren't very good. For one thing, they don't have clear definitions, and so official scorers in different cities have very different standards for what gets recorded.
Even worse, the stats themselves may not tell you what you expect them to. For example, the league leaders in giveaways aren't players who are bad with the puck; they're players who are very good with it and consequently often have it. Last year's top five forwards were Phil Kessel, John Tavares, Joe Thornton, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Ray Whitney -- five players who averaged a 76-point pace last year.
The NHL hasn't added anything new since then, but a number of interested fans have filled the gap, developing new stats and (unlike the NHL) testing whether they are repeatable talents and whether they correlate with future success. Let's take a look at some of them.
Corsi and Fenwick are like plus/minus, but using shots instead of goals. (Corsi includes the shots that get blocked and Fenwick doesn't -- in practice, they're almost completely interchangeable). Most players won't even be on the ice for 100 goals for or against. So while a year might seem like long time, there just aren't enough chances for random blips to even out. But there are a lot more shot attempts -- nearly 25 times more -- so things are a lot more likely to even out with these stats.
Corsi (and Fenwick) correlates extremely well with offensive zone time, puck possession, and scoring chances. It doesn't nail down what individual contribution a player made, but it tells you whether his team tended to control the puck when he was on the ice
Suppose we're evaluating Edmonton's top line, and we look up the Corsi stats for Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. They were positive, but just barely -- a shot or two per 60 minutes played. Does that mean they're barely above average at driving possession? Perhaps not; it means the team was barely above average with them on the ice, but maybe a wretched defense behind them undermined their efforts.
Relative Corsi attempts to correct for that by looking at how much better the team did with them on the ice than it did with them off it. Neither system is perfect -- this corrects for the quality of the defense behind them, but now the team's forward depth becomes a factor (it's much harder to outplay the other forwards on the Blackhawks than on the Predators).
Some players see tougher minutes than others. A player who starts a lot of his shifts in the defensive zone will be facing an uphill battle, and we should consider it a victory if he manages to break even in puck possession and Corsi. So we keep track of this -- zone starts tell us whether a player saw more offensive zone faceoffs than defensive zone faceoffs, and allow us to grade on a curve.
Another thing that can make a player's minutes tougher is if he's regularly asked to go against the opponent's best lines. There are a few different ways to measure this, but Corsi Rel QoC is the most widespread, measuring the average Corsi Rel of the opponents a given player faced.
The actual arithmetic behind the stat is complicated, but you don't need to calculate it yourself to know how to use it. A player who faces top-tier competition will have a Corsi Rel QoC of 0.8 or higher, average will be somewhere around 0.4, and 0 or below indicates pretty weak competition.
Between zone starts and quality of competition, we can get a good sense for which players are getting the prime scoring minutes and which ones are really doing the heavy lifting.
If a goal-based plus/minus isn't very reliable but a shot-based plus/minus is, then it stands to reason that shooting percentages must be particularly unreliable. In fact, players have very little control over their on-ice shooting percentage and on-ice save percentage, and a player who posts strong numbers heavily driven by shooting percentages in one year very often falls back in the subsequent years. Failing to recognize this is one of the most common mistakes of player evaluation.
PDO is the sum of on-ice shooting percentage and on-ice save percentage. It's not particularly important for evaluating individual players (unless you're trying to explain away their +/-, the individual components are usually more important). But PDO is quite effective at identifying teams that have had good or bad luck; every year there is a team with a great record through a month or two that is riding a high PDO, which rarely lasts.
The better way to evaluate teams through the early part of the season is looking at their shot differential. But things get a little complicated because teams change their strategy in response to the score, which can influence shot differential.
There are a variety of ways of handling this. We can look at just situations where the score is tied, or we can adjust for the impact score has on shot differential. One common method is to use Fenwick Close, which includes cases where score effects are small -- where the game is within a goal in the first two periods or tied in the third period. The resulting shot differential rankings give us a good indicator of which teams are controlling the puck and setting themselves up for sustained success, regardless of how the fickle shooting percentages have gone so far.
We haven't yet broken things down to the point where we can sum a team or player up in a single number, but collectively these stats can really improve our understanding of the game. They give us insight into how a player is being used, how he's doing in those minutes, and whether it is reasonable to expect him (and his team) to continue that level of performance.
Predictions are a healthy part of any balanced NHL season preview, and ours here at SB Nation is no different.
Our panel of hockey writers have come together to determine projected finishes for each of the NHL's four new divisions, winners of each of the league's major end-of-season awards, plus (way too early) guesses at the Eastern Conference playoffs, Western Conference playoffs and ultimately, the Stanley Cup Final.
Here's our panel of prognosticators, and links to their Twitter accounts so you can yell at them directly.
Adam Gretz, a contributor to SBNation.com.
Bruce Ciskie, a contributor to SBNation.com and Hockey Wilderness.
Eric Tulsky, a contributor to SBNation.com and an editor at Broad Street Hockey.
Matt Brigidi, a contributor to SBNation.com.
Steve Lepore, a contributor to SBNation.com.
Ted Starkey, a contributor to SBNation.com.
Travis Hughes, hockey editor at SBNation.com and editor at Broad Street Hockey.
Tyler Bleszinski, the founder of SB Nation and Vox Media.
And on to the predictions...
1. Boston Bruins
2. Detroit Red Wings
3. Ottawa Senators
4. Montreal Canadiens
5. Toronto Maple Leafs
6. Tampa Bay Lightning
7. Buffalo Sabres
8. Florida Panthers
How we voted...
|Adam Gretz||Bruce Ciskie||Eric Tulsky||Matt Brigidi||Steve Lepore||Ted Starkey||Travis Hughes||Tyler Bleszinski|
|6||Tampa Bay||Montreal||Florida||Buffalo||Tampa Bay||Tampa Bay||Tampa Bay||Buffalo|
|7||Florida||Buffalo||Tampa Bay||Tampa Bay||Florida||Buffalo||Buffalo||Tampa Bay|
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
2. Washington Capitals
3. New York Rangers
4. New York Islanders
5. Philadelphia Flyers
6. Columbus Blue Jackets
7. New Jersey Devils
8. Carolina Hurricanes
How we voted...
|Adam Gretz||Bruce Ciskie||Eric Tulsky||Matt Brigidi||Steve Lepore||Ted Starkey||Travis Hughes||Tyler Bleszinski|
|1||Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh||NY Rangers||New Jersey|
|3||NY Islanders||NY Islanders||Washington||NY Rangers||NY Rangers||NY Rangers||Philadelphia||Pittsburgh|
|5||Philadelphia||Columbus||NY Islanders||Columbus||NY Islanders||Columbus||NY Islanders||NY Rangers|
|6||New Jersey||NY Rangers||Carolina||NY Islanders||New Jersey||NY Islanders||Columbus||NY Islanders|
|7||Carolina||Carolina||New Jersey||New Jersey||Philadelphia||New Jersey||Carolina||Columbus|
|8||Columbus||New Jersey||Columbus||Carolina||Carolina||Carolina||New Jersey||Carolina|
1. Los Angeles Kings
2. San Jose Sharks
3. Vancouver Canucks
4. Phoenix Coyotes
5. Anaheim Ducks
6. Edmonton Oilers
7. Calgary Flames
How we voted...
|Adam Gretz||Bruce Ciskie||Eric Tulsky||Matt Brigidi||Steve Lepore||Ted Starkey||Travis Hughes||Tyler Bleszinski|
|1||Los Angeles||Los Angeles||Los Angeles||San Jose||Los Angeles||Los Angeles||Los Angeles||San Jose|
|2||San Jose||San Jose||Vancouver||Los Angeles||Anaheim||Vancouver||Vancouver||Los Angeles|
|3||Vancouver||Vancouver||San Jose||Phoenix||San Jose||Anaheim||San Jose||Phoenix|
1. Chicago Blackhawks
2. St. Louis Blues
3. Minnesota Wild
4. Nashville Predators
5. Winnipeg Jets
6. Dallas Stars
7. Colorado Avalanche
How we voted...
|Adam Gretz||Bruce Ciskie||Eric Tulsky||Matt Brigidi||Steve Lepore||Ted Starkey||Travis Hughes||Tyler Bleszinski|
|1||Chicago||St. Louis||Chicago||Chicago||Chicago||Chicago||Chicago||St. Louis|
|2||St. Louis||Chicago||St. Louis||St. Louis||St. Louis||St. Louis||St. Louis||Chicago|
|Adam Gretz||Bruce Ciskie||Eric Tulsky||Matt Brigidi||Steve Lepore||Ted Starkey||Travis Hughes||Tyler Bleszinski|
|Western||Los Angeles||San Jose||Los Angeles||St. Louis||St. Louis||Chicago||Los Angeles||St. Louis|
|Cup Winner||Los Angeles||Pittsburgh||Los Angeles||Detroit||St. Louis||Chicago||Los Angeles||Washington|
|Adam Gretz||Bruce Ciskie||Eric Tulsky||Matt Brigidi||Steve Lepore||Ted Starkey||Travis Hughes||Tyler Bleszinski|
|Hart||Sidney Crosby||Sidney Crosby||Sidney Crosby||Jonathan Toews||Sidney Crosby||Sidney Crosby||Evgeni Malkin||Jonathan Quick|
|Vezina||Pekka Rinne||Tuukka Rask||Henrik Lundqvist||Jimmy Howard||Jonathan Quick||Henrik Lundqvist||Henrik Lundqvist||Jonathan Quick|
|Calder||Jonathan Drouin||Nathan MacKinnon||Nathan MacKinnon||Jonathan Drouin||Nathan MacKinnon||Seth Jones||Valeri Nichushkin||Seth Jones|
|Norris||Alex Pietrangelo||Drew Doughty||Erik Karlsson||Ryan Suter||Shea Weber||Drew Doughty||Ryan Suter||Mike Green|
|Selke||Patrice Bergeron||Pavel Datsyuk||Jonathan Toews||Patrice Bergeron||Patrice Bergeron||Patrice Bergeron||Patrice Bergeron||Pavel Datsyuk|
|Art Ross||Sidney Crosby||Sidney Crosby||Sidney Crosby||Sidney Crosby||Sidney Crosby||Sidney Crosby||Claude Giroux||Alex Ovechkin|
|Jack Adams||Darryl Sutter||Todd McLellan||Alain Vigneault||Mike Babcock||Todd Richards||Adam Oates||Adam Oates||Peter DeBoer|
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