Why Predicting the NHL Playoffs is Harder than You Think

It goes without saying that anyone who starts a site called Puck Prediction is pretty interested in finding ways to forecast the success or failure of NHL teams. But while prediction in the regular season can be interesting, let’s face it: predicting the winner of the Stanley Cup is all anyone really cares about. In the days before the playoffs begin every spring, the hockey media is flooded with series and Cup predictions, and the NHL now sponsors its own bracket challenge. What’s more, many in the analytics community have explored the predictive effects of various metrics, and some (like me) have developed models for picking series. Yet no matter what the approach taken, a way of picking the winners that’s better than some idiot choosing by home-ice advantage remains frustratingly out of reach. And I wonder if the exercise isn’t more hopeless than I’ve realized until now.

Much has been made of the role of one-goal games in the Pacific Division race this past season: despite the best puck-possession numbers in the league, an ugly 13-9-15 record in close contests bumped the 2014 Cup champion Kings out of the postseason, while a 33-1-7 record in one-goal games propelled Anaheim to the best record in the Western Conference despite the worst goal differential of all 16 playoff teams. More to the point, in games decided by two or more goals, LA had a healthy 27-18 record, while the Ducks were just 18-23 in such games. The implication here is that the relationship between possession metrics and winning is much clearer in games decided by more than one goal. And sure enough, when I looked at data on win percentages in non-shootout one-goal games and non-1GGs from the last 10 regular seasons, this appears to be the case.


Or, if you prefer that in puck-possession terms:


What the above tells us is that the correlation between winning percentage and goal differential or puck possession is pretty weak in one-goal games. As such, in close match-ups where a one-goal game is likely, we’re likely to find that our metrics aren’t very predictive, as random bounces assume a greater role in deciding the outcome. In my grand single-game-prediction experiment in 2013-14, the accuracy of my model was 9 percentage points lower in games with an expected a goal differential of one or less. This suggests that statistics are likely to struggle in any small-sample situation where the match-up is close. Which brings us to the playoffs. Replicating the analyses in the graphs above for postseason games yields similar but weaker results; the correlation between goal differential and playoff 1GG win % is just 0.13, while the correlation with score-adjusted Corsi is 0.09. In other words, with respect to the metrics analysts use to predict games, one-goal playoff games are effectively flips of the coin.

Over the past 10 seasons, postseason series have gone an average of six games; on average, three of those games have been one-goal contests. Across the four playoff rounds, series-winning teams have won two-thirds of these games. So let’s work out the math: if two of an advancing team’s four wins were coin-flips that could easily have gone the other way, the average Cup winner will have eight 1GG wins in a short space of time, and the average Finalist will have seven. A deeper dive into the past reveals some interestingly lucky (and unlucky) teams:

  • Of the 16 wins racked up by the 2006 champion Hurricanes, 10 were one-goal victories.
  • In a sign of things to come, the 2007 Ducks had just a 4-3 record in non-1GG contests in the playoffs, but skated away with the Cup on the strength of a 12-2 record in one-goal games.
  • I know the Blackhawks are a good team and all, but it’s probably worth mentioning that they’ve had a lot of luck in close playoff games during the Quenneville era. In the 2010 playoffs, Chicago was 6-1 in one-goal games, including three such wins in the Final (in fairness, they were 10-5 in their other games). In the 2013 playoffs, the Hawks had a 9-2 record in close games, including two one-goal victories to come back from 3-1 down in the second round. And this past postseason, 11 of Chicago’s playoff wins were by one goal. Over the last six playoff years, Chicago’s record in one goal games is a massive 35-17.
  • We all remember the 2011 Canucks for falling short in the Final against Boston, but Vancouver actually had a losing record in non-1GGs in that postseason. Their three one-goal wins in the finale gave them an 11-4 record in close games in those playoffs.
  • In the “we feel bad that St. Louis has never won a Cup” category: the Blues entered the 2013 playoffs with a decent chance at winning it all, yet lost four straight one-goal games in the first round.
  • Close contests were not kind to the Detroit Red Wings after their back-to-back Finals appearances in 2008 and 2009. In 2010, thanks to four one-goal losses to San Jose, they achieved the rare feat of losing a five-game series despite outscoring their opponent. In 2011, four more one-goal losses to the Sharks eliminated them, and in 2012, they lost three one-goal games in the opening round against Nashville. While they did benefit from four one-goal wins over Anaheim in the first round in 2013, two one-goal losses in Games 6 and 7 kept them from eliminating the eventual champions in the second round.
  • One more sign of how dominant the Red Wings were from 2005 through 2009: their playoff record in one-goal games in those four postseasons was just 16-17. In non-close games, they were 27-7.

So, the way to think about playoff series prediction is probably as follows. In any reasonably close match-up, we’d assume a six-game series, with three one-goal games and three non-1GG contests. We can expect the favored team, on average, to take two of the three non-1GG games. Assuming the other three games are effectively random, however, implies the following: in one in every eight series, or about twice every postseason, the underdog team will win all three games; also about twice every playoff year, the favorite will win all three one-goal contests. In three of every eight series (i.e., six times per postseason), the favored team will win two of the one-goal games and take the series in six. But six more times each postseason (again, on average), the underdog will take two of three, and the series will go to seven. The seventh game, of course, has a 50% chance of being another one-goal game. So, roughly a third of the time, we can expect that an inferior team will win a playoff series simply because of the randomness of one-goal games. This, of course, is completely agnostic to the effects of injuries, shooting luck, or hot goalies.

And one last note: I eagerly await the first person to try to convince me that Chicago’s success in one-goal playoff games is a repeatable skill, because, I don’t know, Corsi and Scotty Bowman and stuff. The point being that, if we’re going to doubt teams like Anaheim because they succeed on searing-hot play in one-goal games, we have to be willing to extend the same criticism to teams with gaudy possession statistics who also ride close-game wins to great success. I don’t doubt that the Blackhawks are an excellent team, and have been for a few seasons now, but it’s very easy to look at a team with strong fundamentals and Cup wins and assume that the Cups are primarily the result of the fundamentals. The problem, of course, is all the counterfactual examples of teams that had strong fundamentals and didn’t win anything because they didn’t have a 26-7 record in one-goal contests in three playoff runs. Such is the danger of assuming that random luck doesn’t play a massive role in playoff success, and of focusing too closely on results when evaluating how good a team is. Put simply, even when they’re steam-rolling through the postseason, few teams are as dominant as they appear.

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How Well Does Score-Adjusted Fenwick Predict Playoff Series?

Back in the 2014 postseason, I started seeing analytics-inclined writers on Twitter repeating a fairly startling claim: they argued that someone could predict the outcomes of NHL playoff series with 70% accuracy just by comparing teams’ score-adjusted Fenwick (SAF) differential. I poked around in the data a bit, and even as Los Angeles lent support to this idea by winning the Stanley Cup behind the league’s best regular-season SAF, I couldn’t help but be skeptical. Insofar as teams that consistently outshoot their opponents win games more often than not, it stands to reason that – in the aggregate – teams with better possession numbers will win more series than they lose. But 70% is an awfully high rate of accuracy, especially coming from a single statistic; though I had a fun postseason in 2015, with my multiple-component “mGF%” model going 12-3, even my model is only about 66% accurate over the past seven seasons, and Steve Burtch’s expected-goals model is comparable to that. It’s also fair to point out that the 70% number was most likely based on the six seasons between 2007-08 and 2012-13 (we didn’t have WAR On Ice back then, so SAF data from 2005-07 weren’t easily available), or just 90 playoff series. As Michael Lopez showed in this terrific piece on the NHL’s SAP Matchup Analysis Model, predictive models based on tiny samples can yield very unreliable results. This made me wonder to what extent the 70% figure was a small-samples artifact (i.e., is SAF really that predictive, or are we just confirming that the Red Wings and Blackhawks were good in those seasons)? I also wondered about the extent to which the SAF effect was confounded by home-ice advantage. On average, we’d expect that teams with better regular-season possession numbers will end up finishing higher in the standings; as such, how much of the advantage that those teams enjoy in the playoffs arises from playing more games at home?


Now that the 2015 postseason is done, and after SAF had a rough time predicting series this year*, I decided to revisit this question. With ten seasons’ worth of regular-season SAF data, we can now look at a larger sample of 150 playoff series. To measure team possession, I used full-season team-level score-adjusted Fenwick-For % from WAR On Ice. I stayed away from the partial-season FF% and CF% statistics that I see others use, for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere. Apart from trying to confirm the 70% number, my analysis here focuses on how the predictive accuracy of SAF varies by home-ice advantage and match-up, but also includes some sensitivity analyses. First, I’ve always been skeptical of the validity and comparability of the SAF data from the 48-game 2012-13 season, so I’ve looked at SAF’s predictive accuracy with those 15 series removed. Another analysis excluded series involving the 2005-09 Red Wings and the 2009-10 Blackhawks, for reasons of comparability. My thinking here is that the institution of the salary cap and the elimination of front-loaded, cap-circumventing contracts by the current CBA will make it next to impossible to construct super-dominant teams like these in the future. I’ve presented the results with and without these  assumptions in place, so it’s fine if you don’t agree with me.

Unfortunately, the 70% number falls apart once we expand to the past 10 seasons: over the full sample of 150 series, SAF correctly predicted just 61.3% of playoff series. Without the 2013 playoff data, this falls to 59.3%; without the Wings/Blackhawks “superteams”, SAF is 59% accurate, and with both the superteams and 2013 excluded, SAF is just 56.3% accurate.

So, what about confounding and home-ice advantage? In the full sample, home ice is 55.3% accurate in predicting playoff series. Over these 150 series, the team with the higher SAF opened on home ice 81 times (54%). Teams with home ice and better regular-season possession numbers won 65.4% of their series. Teams with superior score-adjusted Fenwick numbers who opened on the road, however, won just 56.5% of the time. When we dropped the 2013 data, these win probabilities shifted to 63% and 54.8%, respectively. When we dropped the superteams, these probabilities were 62.1% and 55.9%, respectively, and with both the superteams and 2013 out of the analysis, they were 58.6% and 54.1%, respectively.

Something else that interested me was whether the predictive accuracy of possession varied by the difference in SAF between the teams involved. Presumably, a strong possession team matching up against a weak one would have a sizable advantage, while a more even match-up (e.g., the 2014 Western Conference Final, which pitted a 56.4% SAF team against a 56.1% squad) might not give a clear advantage to the team with the higher SAF. In the full sample, over 57% of series featured a match-up of teams separated by 4 or more percentage points of SAF; in these series, the team with the better SAF won 62.1% of the time. Oddly, in the 22% of series in which the teams were separated by a 1%-3% percentage-point difference in SAF, possession was even more accurate in predicting winners (66.7%). When the teams were separated by less than a percentage-point difference in SAF, possession was close to coin-flip accuracy (51.6%). This pattern is unchanged when we consider the same subsets of series as above: in close match-ups, SAF is basically worthless as a predictor, and it performs best when the disparity between the teams is moderate (suggesting an artifact of the small samples involved).

So, to wrap up:

  • Score-adjusted Fenwick is almost certainly not 70% accurate in predicting playoff series. Over the past ten seasons, SAF is 61% accurate, not far off from the 55% accuracy of home-ice advantage. The lesson in this: if you’re going to make bold claims, you should probably wait until you have a large sample of data to base them on.
  • To emphasize this last point, 150 series are still a pretty small sample, and I’m not convinced that 61% is a much more reliable estimate of SAF’s predictive accuracy than the 70% number.
  • The accuracy of SAF for predicting playoff series is confounded by home-ice advantage. In the full sample of 150 series, SAF’s accuracy dropped by 9 percentage points if the team with better possession numbers lacked home-ice advantage. This disparity shrinks when we remove the 2013 data and the superteams from our analysis, but this is mostly due to possession becoming less predictive among the home-ice teams.
  • In a close possession match-up, SAF is (unsurprisingly) almost useless for predicting the winner. If, like me, you think that changes to the NHL’s CBA will make ultra-dominant possession teams like the 2007-08 Red Wings and 2009-10 Blackhawks extremely difficult to assemble going forward, this doesn’t bode well for SAF’s future as a predictive metric.
  • Not addressed here, of course, are reasonable assumptions surrounding team Sh% and Sv%. In the long run, we’d assume that PDO will be close to league average in this analysis, but presumably analysts could easily improve on the accuracy of SAF by incorporating properly-regressed estimates of shooting and goaltending into their models.
  • This analysis also doesn’t dig into a critical assumption analysts make when they use SAF as a predictor; namely, that the team with superior possession numbers entering a series will actually control possession in that series, and will actually win because of it. In reality, this assumption is rarely born out on the ice: in my analysis last year, teams underperformed their expected possession differential in 69% of series.
  • My final piece of advice: any time someone tells you that they’ve boiled a complex game like hockey down to a single number that explains everything, you should maintain your skepticism. More generally, try to remember that puck-possession differential is just a statistic. It measures a set of underlying processes like effective neutral-zone play, crisp exits from the defensive zone, and the ability to maintain possession on the attack, but there’s nothing magical about the number itself. The sound, consistent execution of the above processes is what ultimately drives both good possession numbers and winning; the stats themselves don’t drive anything.

* The image above was my playoff bracket, not one defined by picking series with SAF. Puck possession went 7-8 in this year’s playoffs thanks to an ugly 2-6 first round.

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Interpreting Teams’ Puck Possession During a Streak

During the course of the NHL season, and especially into the postseason, many analysts look at partial-season estimates of puck possession as a way to get at the quality of teams’ underlying play. When we see a team race out to a fast start, we’ll often look at their early Corsi-For percentages to get a sense of whether that success is sustainable (sometimes, as in the case of the 2011-12 Wild or the 2013-14 Maple Leafs, our conclusions are entertaining). If a team labeled a contender hits an unexpected losing streak, we’ll look at their possession numbers during the streak to try to understand whether the rough patch is bad luck or something worse. And many in the hockey stats community handicap playoff series predictions by referring to a team’s CF% in the games leading up to a given series (as far as I can tell, the “last-25-games” measure is most popular).

Still, this has always kind of bugged me. Part of my concern is the sampling issue: how reliable are these CF% estimates if you only have a handful of games’ worth of Corsi events to measure? This is particularly true when it comes to using late-season CF% to predict playoff series: not only are you throwing out an immense amount of useful data, but the exercise is confounded by teams tanking their seasons, by key players being more likely to be injured, and by teams trading away important players at the deadline. (Another issue worth mentioning: imbalances between teams in strength of schedule in a subset of the season make it almost impossible to compare a team’s metrics to those of other teams, or to the same squad’s numbers at another point in the season.) But another significant concern involves teams’ records during a given span of games: if possession differential is correlated with winning, it makes sense that two teams with identical underlying fundamentals might have very different CF% measures over a short span if one is on a win streak and the other is losing games. I constructed a simulation study to explore (a) how much a team’s score-adjusted CF% over a certain number of games changes depending on their record, and (b) how likely we are to misjudge the strength of a team’s possession game based on a short-term streak.

I assumed that the best estimate of a team’s “true” possession differential was their 82-game score-adjusted Corsi-For %. This is informed by work by Micah Blake McCurdy, though I stuck with the original score-adjustment formula from Eric Tulsky and didn’t incorporate Micah’s venue adjustments. I used WAR On Ice to grab game-level data on every team’s even-strength Corsi events while tied, trailing, and leading, for the nine 82-game seasons between 2005-06 and 2014-15. (I didn’t feel that the “true possession” estimates from the 48-game 2012-13 season were comparable, so this season was excluded.) I divided the data by teams’ 82-game score-adjusted CF%. For simplicity, I used three categories: poor possession teams (those with SACF% lower than 48%; average SACF% 46.1%), neutral possession teams (SACF% 48% to 51.9%; average 50.1%), and good possession teams (SACF% 52% or higher; average 54.1%). Within each category, I divided the data again by game result, focusing only on regulation wins and regulation losses. For the analysis, I set up a Monte Carlo process that simulated 10-, 20-, and 50-game streaks for hypothetical poor, neutral, and good possession teams, by randomly drawing single-game results from won and lost games for each type of team. The idea being that the 10- and 20-game estimates represent streaks, while the 50-game estimates allow us to see how SACF% would converge in a larger sample of games. Within each streak length, I assumed winning percentages of 0.100, 0.300, 0.500, 0.700, and 0.900. Each simulation consisted of 10,000 draws.


The above table describes how SACF% changes depending on teams’ records; these results didn’t change by streak length. As you can see, a team’s score-adjusted Corsi can vary by about 2 percentage points depending on whether they’re winning or losing. A bad team on a winning streak will tend to have a score-adjusted Corsi not far below that of a neutral team, and a strong possession team that can’t buy a win will tend to have possession numbers closer to those of an average team. Keep in mind, of course, that this analysis is completely agnostic to things like goaltending or a run of hot shooting. As the number of games gets large, this relationship doesn’t really change, but, of course, it’s basically impossible to maintain 0.100 or 0.900 play for a long period of time. So, if we have a strong possession team that has one ugly 2-18 stretch, but plays 0.500 hockey the rest of the season, on average we’d expect them to finish the year with a SACF% around 53.5% (i.e., a weighted average of the 52.7% during the skid and the 53.7% in the remaining games).


Where this gets interesting is in the estimated probabilities of a team’s possession play in a streak representing who they really are. Based on this analysis, it’s unlikely that a strong possession team will be mistaken for a weak one, or vice versa. Beyond that, though, all bets are off. A bad possession team on a 9-1-0 streak will have the Corsi of a decent squad 36% of the time, while a bad puck-control team with a 0.700 win percentage in 20 games will look like an average team a quarter of the time. Similarly, a strong possession team on a 3-7-0 streak will have the Corsi of a mediocre team in 29% of cases. Good and bad possession teams playing 0.500 hockey have a roughly 24% probability of being mistaken for an average team. As far as neutral possession teams, it’s easy to mistake them for a team in one of the other categories, depending on whether they’re winning or losing. A team like this that goes 1-9-0 will be mistaken for a lousy team 30% of the time, but if they go 9-1-0, they’ll be mistaken for a strong possession team almost a third of the time.

Some takeaways:

  • In the setup of the Monte Carlo, we assume that we know how good a team truly is at controlling possession. In reality, we usually don’t know this. As such, any time we try to make judgments about a team’s fundamental play based on a small number of games, we’re likely to misjudge them if we don’t at least look at their record during those games.
  • Insofar as 82-game score-adjusted possession estimates are the closest we’re going to get to estimating a team’s true quality, we should use these whenever we can. When trying to use possession measures in evaluating playoff match-ups, it’s probably wise to use full seasons of data rather than a sample of recent games. Unless two teams enter a series with similar recent records and comparably tough schedules, we may have difficulty comparing CF% numbers from those games.
  • To draw some practical insights from these analyses, last season’s Columbus Blue Jackets won 16 of their final 19 games after struggling through the season’s first five months. Their SACF% prior to the streak was a miserable 45.9%, but they finished the campaign playing 49.9% hockey. These results suggest that the Jackets’ late-season play may not have been representative of their true quality; rather, they may have just seen the typical Corsi bump of a winning team. In contrast, the Pittsburgh Penguins won just four of their final 15 games, yet played 54% possession hockey over that stretch; my analysis implies that 54% may have underestimated how well they played last season.
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2014-15 NHL Season Review: Pacific Division, Playoff Teams

It’s time to wrap up my look back at the seasons of all 30 NHL teams. If you missed them, check out my reviews of the Metropolitan (playoff and non-playoff teams), Atlantic (playoff and non-playoff teams), and Central (playoff and non-playoff teams) Divisions, as well as my look at the non-playoff Pacific squads. Today, we finish with the Pacific playoff teams.

Anaheim Ducks

For those of us interested in using numbers to try to figure out the NHL, no team is honestly more interesting than the Ducks. The conventional wisdom about winning squads in the analytics community goes something like this: shooting and save percentages tend to regress to the mean over time, so any success that doesn’t derive from effectively driving puck possession will tend to be fleeting. Of course, though the conventional wisdom is in general true, it doesn’t follow that it should be necessarily true for every team in every season. And after winning their third straight Pacific crown, pacing the Western Conference in the regular season, and advancing to Game 7 of the Conference Finals, all with fairly mediocre possession numbers, it’s safe to say that Anaheim is a pretty dramatic exception to the rule.

I think the explanation for how the Ducks have been so successful in the three full seasons under Bruce Boudreau is some combination of the following:

  1. Luck: I can concede that the Ducks may have been fortunate to win the Pacific in the 48-game 2012-13 season. They were a poor shot-creation team that benefitted hugely from 8.6% shooting at even strength, and tremendous 0.930 goaltending from Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth helped them to finish ninth-best in goals against. More generally, given what we know about the respective roles of luck and talent in the NHL regular season, 48 games is just too small a sample for us to know if Anaheim was the best team in the Pacific that year. I can also concede the utter strangeness of the Ducks’ 2014-15 season, in which they finished with a goal differential of just +10 (worst among all 16 playoff teams), yet reached 109 points due to an absurd 33-1-7 record in one-goal games. What’s harder to concede is their division title in 2013-14, and the fact that they’ve strung together three such successful years. Following 2012-13 with another title suggests that their result in the short season wasn’t a fluke, and at some point, warnings that the Ducks’ shooting percentage would regress to average have sounded increasingly silly: over the past three seasons, Anaheim has shot 9% at 5-on-5 as a team, and if that’s puck luck, 212 games worth is an awfully improbable amount of good bounces. While I’ll agree that the one-goal game performance this past season was insane, if you believe the Ducks have been successful because they’ve done a lot of things right, you can even make the argument that Anaheim in 2014-15 was an essentially solid team whose luck in close games offset their struggles in goal (0.919 5-on-5 Sv%) following Hiller’s offseason departure.
  2. They Know What They’re Doing: The luck-vs-talent work referenced above strongly suggests that it’s incredibly unlikely for a team to lead its conference in standings points over a 212-game span on luck alone. Another set of data worth considering: in the full seasons in which he’s stood behind an NHL bench, Boudreau’s results are as follows: 1st in the Southeast, 1st in the Southeast, 1st in the NHL, 1st in the Eastern Conference, 1st in the Pacific, 1st in the Western Conference, 1st in the Western Conference. So, you know, it’s possible that he knows what he’s doing. There’s a case to be made that Anaheim wins by having elite talents who can drive above-average on-ice percentages, while having passable (if not dominant) underlying numbers. Some analysts have tended to lump the Ducks in with teams like the Maple Leafs, Avalanche, and Flames (i.e., teams that have won despite awful fundamental play), but this is unfairly negative. Over the past three seasons, the Ducks’ score-adjusted Fenwick is 50.8%; not a dominant number, but far from a terrible one. Over the same period, the Ducks sit squarely in the middle of the league in both shot-creation and shot-suppression: again, not great, but not poor enough to suggest a problem. The organization’s talent for finding good young goaltenders has consistently given them an above-average team Sv%, and it’s probably safe to assume that any team with a healthy Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry will score on an above-average percentage of their shots. As such, rather than follow the blueprint for success that analytics often lays out (i.e., assume league-average percentages and try to drive a good goal differential through possession), the Ducks appear to assume that they’ll come out ahead in the percentages, and that “good enough” in the fundamentals is enough. And thus far, they’ve been right.
  3. My Comparative Advantage Theory is Awesome: Recently, I posited that higher-scoring teams tend to have greater success in low-scoring NHL seasons, and vice versa. The idea being that offensive ability is hard to come by in low-scoring eras, and as such will set a small number of teams apart from the pack. Data throughout the league’s history are generally supportive of my theory, and in the past three seasons, only two teams have scored more goals than Anaheim (if you’re intrigued, those two teams were this season’s Cup Finalists). If my idea is right, you have to give Boudreau credit for choosing his jobs wisely: the top-scoring team from 2007-08 through 2010-11 was his Capitals. This would suggest that, as long as their two offensive stars stay healthy, and assuming a bounceback year from their goalies, the Ducks can be expected to keep on winning.

If fans of the other six teams in the Pacific needed any more bad news, Anaheim also has one of the deepest prospect pools in the league, and has tons of cap space heading into the offseason. After a strong playoff run, unrestricted free agent Matt Beleskey will likely be seeking big money; at just 26, and following a 22-goal season with solid two-way numbers (4.3% Corsi Rel), there’s a case to be made that he’s worth retaining, though probably not for the money he’ll sign for. The same probably can’t be said for 34-year-old free-agent blueliner Francois Beauchemin, who will almost certainly be offered more than he’s worth at this point. Jakob Silfverberg and Carl Hagelin (a superb draft-day acquisition from the Rangers) will both presumably get new deals as RFAs. The greater challenge for GM Bob Murray is likely to come in 2016, when Richard Rakell, Jiri Sekac, Simon Despres, Sami Vatanen, Hampus Lindholm, and goaltenders Frederik Andersen and John Gibson are due new deals, all as RFAs. At 30 years old, Ryan Kesler is a UFA a year from now; if he figures into Anaheim’s future plans, he could be offered an extension soon. The Ducks’ strange dissatisfaction with deadline acquisition James Wisniewski ended on draft day, as they shipped him to Carolina for additional goaltending depth in Anton Khudobin. Following the desultory finish to the Ducks’ season (two straight 5-2 losses to Chicago), there were briefly rumors that Boudreau may be sent packing. Since Anaheim wasn’t that stupid, though, it’s probably safe to pencil them in for another strong season in 2015-16.

Vancouver Canucks

Now we’re entering the “how the f— did this team make the playoffs?” section of this post. After a heartbreaking loss in Game 7 of the 2011 Finals and first-round losses in 2012 and 2013 (three division titles and two President’s Trophies in those seasons notwithstanding), ownership jettisoned long-time head coach Alain Vigneault and goaltender-of-the-future Cory Schneider in the 2013 offseason. And as Vancouver tumbled in the standings in the second half of 2013-14, months of uncertainty surrounding the status of franchise goalie Roberto Luongo came to an end, as he was dealt to Florida at the trade deadline. After seeing the Canucks miss the playoffs, fire GM Mike Gillis and head coach John Tortorella, and replace Torts with Willie Desjardins (a successful WHL and AHL coach), it appeared that a rebuild was underway in British Columbia. Yet these moves weren’t followed by further efforts to get younger or shed bad contracts, and after taking a look at their aging, declining roster, it was easy to write Vancouver off as a directionless squad with little chance in 2014-15.

And yet, here we are: for all the negatives, the Canucks racked up 101 points, good for fifth-best in the Western Conference, and began the playoffs on home ice while the last three teams to eliminate them from the postseason all watched from home. In their first season under Desjardins, Vancouver’s fundamentals were solid, if unspectacular: their 53.5 Corsi attempts for per 60 5-on-5 minutes were the ninth-lowest in the league, and their rate of shot prevention (54.5 Corsi against per 60) was mediocre. With a 50.5% score-adjusted Fenwick, their possession game was effective, but far from elite. And with lackluster 7.7% even-strength shooting and 0.917 goaltending, it wasn’t a surprise that Vancouver’s goal differential at 5-on-5 was negative. These numbers suggest a fairly mediocre team, and in a down year for the West, fifth in the conference was probably representative of the top of the playoff bubble. For anyone who followed the travails of the Kings and Ducks this season, it’s no surprise how the Canucks ended up on the right side of the bubble: their 22-4-5 record in one-goal games was second only to Anaheim’s.

Assuming that Los Angeles and San Jose work their way back into the playoff hunt next season, you can probably guess that I’m not bullish on the Canucks in 2015-16. Vancouver has some intriguing prospects working their way into regular NHL duty, including Hunter Shinkaruk, Bo Horvat, and Linden Vey, but many key contributors from 2014-15 are near or over the wrong side of 30, and the team’s cap space is extremely limited. Offseason signing Radim Vrbata led the Canucks with 31 goals, but the team may be content to watch his contract year play out rather than offer an extension, as Vrbata will be 34 at the start of next season. Dan Hamhuis, on the other hand, is entering the final year of his deal, and with a 1.4% Corsi Rel, was one of Vancouver’s better defensemen last season. Given the financial constraints the team is facing, the new deals for Derek Dorsett (7 goals and an ugly -7.8% Corsi Rel) and Luca Sbisa (-3.1% Corsi Rel) greatly complicate the picture. Finally, the team’s goaltending situation is (once again) a bit of a mess. After wading through an unpleasant goalie controversy for two seasons (and losing two excellent netminders in the process), Vancouver immediately took on another one: after young Eddie Lack delivered a solid 0.925 in 41 games in 2013-14, the Canucks supplanted him as the team’s future by signing free agent Ryan Miller to a lucrative three-year deal. Aside from the problematic implications of his $6M cap hit, Miller’s career 0.922 Sv% also suggests that he’s, you know, nowhere near good enough to backstop a team with neutral possession numbers to contention. Miller’s 0.913 work in 45 games was a big reason why Vancouver ranked 19th in goals against this season, and the team entered the postseason without a clear starter in net. Yet when presented with a chance to deal one of their goalies at the draft, they traded Lack to Carolina for picks. This will leave them entering 2015-16 with an unappealing tandem of Miller and RFA Jacob Markstrom (an intriguing young goalie who’s struggled badly at the NHL level). So, while the Canucks exceeded my expectations this past season, they still look to me like a team in decline, and I’m not sure their management is capable of guiding them through what has already been a difficult transition.

Calgary Flames

Okay, now we’re really there: seriously, how the f— did this team make the playoffs?

Before we dive into any of the numbers, it’s probably worth noting a few points for context. First off, the 2014-15 Flames weren’t really comparable to teams like the 2007-08 Canadiens or the 2013-14 Avalanche, who legitimately crushed their regular seasons despite weak fundamentals. Calgary finished last season 16th in the NHL, and only clinched a playoff berth in the campaign’s final week. And though they surprised many (but not all) observers by triumphing over Vancouver in six first-round games, if you’ve read the rest of this post, you understand that the Canucks were far from a strong opponent. So, while it’s fair to say that Calgary defied everyone’s expectations in 2014-15, their season is hardly a death knell for possession-based analytics. Even when having what many considered to be a miraculously lucky campaign, the Flames were at best a bubble team, and could easily have found themselves on the outside of the playoff picture.

The reality for this team is that it’s still working to rebuild after failing to deliver a Stanley Cup champion around Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, and waiting too long before beginning that rebuild. After Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester were dealt at the 2013 trade deadline, Calgary cratered to 13th in the West in both 2012-13 and 2013-14. But the returns on those painful seasons are already in evidence. Forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, just 21 and 20 years old (respectively), combined for 56 goals and 126 points last season. At the back, 24-year-old T.J. Brodie (41 points, 1.8% Corsi Rel) has joined Norris-quality veteran Mark Giordano (5.7% Corsi Rel) to form a very solid anchor D pairing. At this year’s draft, the Flames set the league abuzz by snatching coveted RFA Dougie Hamilton away from Boston. And many more promising youngsters, including Sam Bennett (who missed much of last season with shoulder surgery, but took part in their playoff run), Josh Jooris, and Markus Granlund, are on the way to the NHL roster.

The danger, of course, is that Calgary looks past their wretched underlying numbers and assumes that the rebuild is further along than it actually is. And make no mistake, the underlying numbers suggest a team that’s very much a work in progress. For context, the Flames’ 45.6% score-adjusted Fenwick is the 23rd-worst possession season in the last 10 years; only the 2012-13 Maple Leafs and the 2010-11 Ducks (is there a connection between those teams?) made the playoffs with poorer numbers. Calgary’s rate of shot creation (just 49.9 Corsi for per 60 5-on-5 minutes) was fourth-worst in the league, and only Buffalo allowed shots against at a higher rate than the Flames’ 62.4 Corsi per 60. What’s worse, the goaltending they got from Jonas Hiller (0.927 5-on-5 Sv%) and Kari Rammo (0.917) wasn’t especially good; Calgary finished a dismal 17th in goals allowed, and without one of the league’s better penalty kills, it would’ve been worse. What saved the Flames’ bacon was 8.9% shooting at even strength; despite their lousy shot creation, they finished 6th in the league in scoring. It’s difficult to say how sustainable that Sh% is – given the dramatic turnover in their roster in recent years, it’s tough to tell what their baseline should look like – but it’s probably a safe bet to guess that 31-year-old Jiri Hudler won’t hit 31 goals or 76 points again next season.

The smart play for Brian Burke and GM Brad Treliving, then, is to use the team’s oceans of cap space to resign young prospects and important veterans, while resisting the temptation of more aggressive moves that set back the development of the Flames’ promising core. This may, of course, be a lot to ask of the current management group, which burned a year of Bennett’s entry-level contract for three playoff games in a series they were losing 0-2, and that inexplicably signed Brandon Bollig and Deryk Engelland to multi-year free-agent deals last year. New RFA contracts are due to Hamilton, Jooris, Mikael Backlund, and Michael Ferland, with Monahan, Gaudreau, Granlund, and D prospect Tyler Wotherspoon up next year. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see a lengthy extension for Giordano this offseason, and if Hudler figures into Calgary’s plans after next season, now would be the time to get a deal done. With Ramo an unrestricted free agent, the goaltending situation is a bit uncertain; while he played reasonably well in the second round against Anaheim, Ramo’s age (28) and career 0.915 Sv% in the NHL suggest that the team should probably move on. Still, with Hiller only under contract for one more season (and having lost the team’s confidence during the playoffs), and few top netminding prospects in the system (Joni Ortio is probably the most NHL-ready, but that’s not saying much), the Flames would probably like to have another experienced goalie in the wings. If Calgary plays it safe and conservative next year, it might well mean a 2015-16 without playoff hockey, but in the bigger picture, that might not be a bad thing.

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2014-15 NHL Season Review: Central Division, Playoff Teams

Now that the 2014-15 season is in the books, I’m taking a look back at the seasons of all 30 teams. I’ve wrapped up my look at the Eastern Conference, including the Metropolitan playoff and non-playoff teams and the Atlantic playoff and non-playoff teams, and we’ve previously checked out the non-playoff squads in the Central and the Pacific. Today, we check in on the playoff teams in the West, starting with the best teams in a very competitive Central Division, including the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.

St. Louis Blues

For all the moaning of fans in, well, nearly every fan base not in Chicago or Tampa, few NHL franchises have a star-crossed, demoralizing back story to rival that of St. Louis. Brought into the league during the 1967 expansion, the Blues have a proud and illustrious history, including three Cup Final appearances under the leadership of Scotty Bowman, the Hall of Fame career of Bernie Federko, the 1986 Monday Night Miracle, many successful seasons with Brett Hull, Adam Oates, Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger, and (briefly) Wayne Gretzky, and most recently, four seasons as an elite defensive team under Ken Hitchcock. In their 47 seasons in existence, the Blues have missed the playoffs just eight times, yet they have the same number of Stanley Cup championships as the proposed expansion team in Las Vegas. In the four years under Hitchcock, only the Kings and Blackhawks have had better possession numbers than St. Louis’s 54.1% score-adjusted Fenwick, and only Los Angeles, New Jersey, and Detroit have done a better job suppressing shots against. If you want to nitpick, you could point out that the Blues have ranked just 14th in goals scored in that time, and argue that it’s hard to be a dominant team in today’s low-scoring NHL without elite offensive firepower. But it’s hard to nitpick the results: since 2011, St. Louis has finished with either the second- or third-best record in the Western Conference, and won the 2011-12 Jennings Trophy with an absurdly low 165 goals against.

In 2014-15, it was more of the same.  With 109 points, the Blues once again captured the Central title, in a year in which theirs was the most competitive division in hockey. Behind a lethal power play and 8.2% shooting at even strength, St. Louis finished fifth in the league in scoring, and their superb shot prevention work tied them with L.A. for the fourth-lowest goals allowed. 23-year-old Vladimir Tarasenko dazzled with 37 goals and 73 points. Alex Steen lived up to his new contract with 24 goals and 64 points, captain David Backes scored 26 times, and young Jaden Schwartz broke out with 28 goals and 63 points. Key free-agent signing Paul Stastny added just 46 points, but with a 3.4% Corsi Rel, his work as a two-way center came as advertised. In an injury-shortened campaign, Kevin Shattenkirk had a particularly strong 4.8% Corsi Rel, but other big-minutes defensemen struggled a bit to drive play, including Alex Pietrangelo (-2.5% Corsi Rel) and Jay Bouwmeester (-2.8%). Still, for all the positives, it’s impossible to avoid mentioning their first-round series loss at the hands of Minnesota. St. Louis did control play effectively in the series, but apart from their six-goal explosion in Game 4, they managed only four goals at 5-on-5 against the Wild, and with the series tied at 2-2, goalies Brian Elliott and Jake Allen conceded five even-strength goals on just 34 shots in Games 5 and 6. In short, when they needed some bounces most, their puck luck was awful.

St. Louis is clearly a team built to win now, and they’ll very likely look the same come next season. Tarasenko will receive a raise as an RFA, as will Allen, but the team has plenty of cap space to make those moves work. Given the manner in which their playoff year unfolded, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Blues went after another goaltender. But honestly, Allen is the future in net for this team, and it would be arguably counterproductive to add another obstacle between him and NHL experience. If St. Louis has a real need, it’s probably for another scoring forward. Whether such an addition would fit into their cap picture is a different question, but regardless, there probably won’t be a better time for bold action in the interest of winning.

Nashville Predators

A lot of unexpected things happened during the 2014-15 regular season, and I’ll admit up front that the year the Predators just had came completely out of left field for me. While they’ve made regular appearances in the postseason over the past decade, much of the Barry Trotz era in Nashville was characterized by teams that (a) got badly outshot and (b) had elite goaltending from either Tomas Vokoun or Pekka Rinne to cover for their defending. Between 2009-10 and 2011-12 (all playoff years), the Preds’ possession game deteriorated badly, and in 2012, Nashville was one of the worst possession teams (47.4% score-adjusted Fenwick) in the past decade to open the postseason on home ice. In 2012-13, the crash finally arrived, as Nashville’s SAF dropped to an ugly 46.5%, and despite a 0.929 Sv% season from Rinne, the Predators finished a lowly 27th in the league. The following year, Trotz was able to tighten Nashville’s systems, as they delivered stronger defensive work and an improved 49.1% SAF, but with Rinne absent or struggling due to hip ailments, the team’s goaltending cratered to 0.911 at even strength, and they finished just 19th. Trotz was fired in the offseason, and given the Preds’ history of meager goal-scoring and weak possession play, I had low expectations for them in 2014-15.

So, naturally, they completely surprised me. Rinne had a superb comeback season, with a 0.937 Sv% in 64 games; overall, Nashville enjoyed the fourth-best goaltending in the NHL this year. Even more interesting, though, was the overhaul in systems engineered by new head coach Peter Laviolette. The Predators’ 53.3% score-adjusted Fenwick was fifth-best in the league, a remarkable turnaround for a team that has historically struggled to drive play. Despite Trotz’s reputation as a defense-first bench boss, Nashville’s rate of shots against actually dropped in year one under Laviolette, from 54.3 Corsi against/60 5-on-5 minutes to 52.2 per 60. What’s more, the team’s offensive productivity soared from an ugly 51 Corsi for per 60 to 58.4, the sixth-highest rate of shot-creation in the league, and the Preds became the NHL’s sixth-highest scoring team at 5-on-5 this year. Calder nomineesnub Filip Forsberg led the team with 26 goals and 63 points; at just 20 years old, Forsberg is only going to get better, and the 2013 trade that sent him to Nashville from Washington is only looking worse with time. Offseason acquisition James Neal chipped in 23 goals in 67 games. Mike Ribeiro had a strong season, and appears likely to sign a multi-year deal to stay in Tennessee, but given his age (35) and history of unpleasant off-ice behavior, it’s not clear that this is a great idea. Also breaking out were 24-year-old Colin Wilson, who scored 20 goals and contributed solid two-way minutes, and second-year defenseman Seth Jones (1.8% Corsi Rel), who was one of the team’s better blueliners. On the down side, brilliant goaltending disguised the struggles of defensemen Roman Josi (-4.4% Corsi Rel) and Shea Weber (-4.1%).

Long-time GM David Poile has a healthy amount of cap space to work with this offseason, but also has a fair number of decisions to make. The aforementioned extension for Ribeiro is likely to be costly, as he’s coming off a 62-point season. Wilson, center Craig Smith (who scored 23 goals and 44 points), and young Calle Jarnkrok are all due new deals as RFAs, and long-time Pred Mike Fisher is newly signed to a two-year extension. Forsberg and Jones will hit RFA a year from now, and will certainly merit raises. On the other hand, an ugly 0.971 on-ice PDO disguised strong two-way play by trade acquisition Cody Franson, and it appears the team will pass on signing the free-agent blueliner, along with the aging and declining Anton Volchenkov. In goal, Rinne is signed at a hefty $7M cap hit for four more years, but young Marek Mazanek continues to develop as the heir apparent, and is still a year away from RFA. As such, while it’s easy to wonder if a team’s sudden success will be transitory, it appears that the Predators have both the systems and the talent in place to compete in the Central next year.

Chicago Blackhawks

Moving on from franchises who disappointed this postseason, now we come to a team whose recent playoff fortunes have been almost unimaginably rosy. After a tough regular season that saw them post their worst possession numbers in the Joel Quenneville era (granted, a still-solid 52.8% score-adjusted Fenwick), that saw their defensive numbers tumble from the league’s elite, that saw Patrick Sharp’s poor season and Patrick Kane’s mid-season injury drop them all the way to 17th in scoring, and that saw them finish just two points ahead of the wild card spots in a tough Central Division, everything came together for the Blackhawks the moment the postseason started. Opening the playoffs on the road in Nashville, unheralded backup goaltender Scott Darling took over for the shaky Corey Crawford, and proceeded to outduel Vezina nominee Pekka Rinne as Chicago took the series in six. In the second round against Minnesota, Crawford turned back into a wall, and the Hawks completed their trip through the Central playoffs with a surprising sweep. In the Conference Final against Anaheim, they fought off two elimination games and a ton of score effects, and came back from 2-1 down in the Final to triumph over Tampa Bay in six games. With the victory, Chicago captured their third Stanley Cup in six seasons, a remarkable accomplishment in an era constrained by the salary cap.

Still, given the decline in the team’s underlying numbers and the salary-cap crunch that’s now arrived in Chicago, it’s hard to escape the sense that this was a last hurrah of sorts for this group of players. The matching $10.5M extensions for Kane and Jonathan Toews kick in next season, and GM Stan Bowman has a lot of work to get done despite very little cap space. The world of hockey commentary is flooded these days with proposed trades that could solve the Blackhawks’ cap crunch, but the game theorist in me questions Bowman’s ability to make good deals given his limited leverage. (I mean, if you’re one of the league’s other 29 GMs, are you going to take on bad contracts to help the most successful franchise in the cap era keep their lineup together?) Gifted winger Brandon Saad is due a sizable raise as an RFA; other important RFAs include defenseman David Rundblad and center Marcus Kruger. A year from now, key defense prospects Stephen Johns and Trevor van Riemsdyk will also be RFAs. All-Star defenseman Brent Seabrook is entering a contract year, and at 30, is almost certainly hoping for a massive multi-year deal. Unfortunately for Bowman, very little money is moving off the books either now or next season, and many of the trades that have been proposed to provide cap relief will leave significant holes to fill. With Johnny Oduya and Michal Rozsival both unrestricted free agents and Kimmo Timonen retiring, Chicago may have a serious shortage of NHL defensemen next season; if Seabrook leaves during the next year, the Hawks as constituted will be left with Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and a slew of promising but unproven blueliners (led by Rundblad). Sharp’s $5.9M cap hit (due for two more seasons) has been brought up frequently in trade rumors, but after a disappointing 16-goal season, the market for the 33-year-old winger may not be strong. Marian Hossa could be an intriguing trade candidate, though such a deal would make Chicago a weaker team overnight. The Slovak winger is a future Hall of Famer and still a very effective player, and at this point, he’s only owed about $16M over the next six years; a team needing to reach the cap floor would likely see a lot to like in acquiring Hossa. Of course, six years of a $5.25M cap hit is a lot to commit to a player who will turn 37 next year. Crawford has also been mentioned as a trade possibility. The Hawks goalie played well in the regular season and in the final three rounds of the postseason, and it’s not clear who would start 65 or so games a year for Chicago if Crawford were dealt. While no one doubts the competence of the front office running the Blackhawks, the juggling act required to maintain the level of on-ice talent we’re used to here may be untenable. In short, while Hawks fans will no doubt spend the summer savoring the thrill of victory, it should be a very interesting few months for this franchise.

Minnesota Wild

A few years ago, if you’d asked me where I’d find an NHL team committed to a mercenary strategy of buying a Stanley Cup through high-priced free agents, I don’t think I would’ve guessed Minnesota. Yet ever since owner Craig Leipold committed almost $200M to the past performances of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in 2012 (and then complained about runaway inflation in player salaries while leading the charge for the lockout later that year . . . but I digress), this has been the plan of action in St. Paul. Need a solid two-way center? Acquire then-30-year-old Jason Pominville at the 2013 deadline and commit to five years and $28M. Need a scoring forward? Sign up for a $6.5M cap hit with Thomas Vanek. Need a random third-line grinder? Give $5M to Matt Cooke (and then buy him out two years later when you need cap space). And, series victories over Colorado in 2014 and St. Louis in 2015 aside, the results haven’t really been there: for all the big names brought in to fill out the Wild’s roster, they’ve only managed to slot into the eighth Western Conference seed in 2013 and wild-card slots in both 2014 and 2015.

More to the point, in 2012-13 and 2013-14, Minnesota’s middling 49.1% score-adjusted Fenwick suggested a team whose ceiling wasn’t much higher than the playoff bubble. And in 2014-15, though their possession numbers improved to a solid 52.4% SAF, they might not have seen the postseason if not for an unlikely savior. Midway through January, the Wild were floundering at 18-19-5, well outside the playoff picture. Importantly, they had the NHL’s worst goaltending, with an 0.895 Sv% at even strength, and looking for veteran depth, they acquired Devan Dubnyk in a trade with Arizona. Insofar as Dubnyk had had a disastrous 2013-14, beginning the year as Edmonton’s starter and finishing it playing for Montreal’s affiliate in the AHL, and insofar as his career 0.918 Sv% at 5-on-5 didn’t suggest a diamond in the rough, there was no reason to suspect that Minnesota’s season was about to turn around. Yet behind Dubnyk’s 0.940 goaltending (and, it must be acknowledged, 9.4% team shooting), the Wild stormed to a 28-9-3 finish, and upset the heavily favored Blues in round one before being swept by the eventual champions.

With Josh Harding unfortunately (but understandably) set to retire from hockey, and 37-year-old Niklas Backstrom both ineffective and unable to stay healthy, it’s unsurprising that Leipold’s massive dump truck of money has made a stop at Dubnyk’s house. While a six-year deal seems like an awful lot for, essentially, a half-season of brilliant work, Dubnyk is probably the best option the Wild have for a starting goaltender in 2015-16. 27-year-old winger Chris Stewart, acquired at the trade deadline, could also see a long-term deal from Minnesota. Youngsters Erik Haula and Mikael Granlund will likely see new deals as RFAs. What’s less clear, though, is whether the big deals signed in the past few years will hamstring the team as players like Parise, Suter, Pominville and Mikko Koivu enter their mid-30s. The time for this group to win is, by necessity, very soon, yet it’s not clear that they’re good enough to get there.

Winnipeg Jets

If Nashville’s rise to the third-best record in the West was hard to see coming, just as improbable was the Winnipeg Jets’ return to the playoffs, their first postseason appearance since relocating to Manitoba from Atlanta in 2011. In the three seasons prior to 2014-15, of course, the Jets weren’t as horrendous as their poor results would suggest: their score-adjusted Fenwick over those seasons was a respectable 50.3%, and they ranked 13th in goal-scoring over that frame. Their struggles were actually pretty simple to explain: the Jets were a high-event team playing porous defense – their 56 Corsi against per 60 at 5-on-5 put them 19th in the league from 2011-2014 – and their 0.917 even-strength Sv% ranked 7th-worst in the NHL. As such, only six teams allowed more goals than Winnipeg’s 614.

This season, however, was a very different story. With a Corsi-against rate of 50.1 events per 60, the Jets were actually the fifth-best defensive team in the NHL, and their 0.928 team Sv% was ninth-best in the league. In the four seasons prior to 2014-15, Ondrej Pavelec’s 0.919 Sv% had earned him a reputation as the NHL’s worst starting goaltender, but a 0.930 this year matched his career best, and backup Michael Hutchinson posted a solid 0.924 campaign. As such, Winnipeg tied for the second-fewest goals allowed at 5-on-5 in 2014-15, and ranked 9th in overall goals-against. On offense, the picture was a bit more mixed. The Jets’ rate of shot creation dipped to 55.4 Corsi for per 60 this season after being 8th-highest in the league through 2011-14, and they finished just 16th in scoring (20th at even strength). This lack of scoring punch hurt them in the postseason against Anaheim, as, apart from a four-goal Game 3, they managed just five goals against the Ducks. When Pavelec faltered to a 0.902 Sv% in the series, the sweep was on.

Heading into the offseason, the Jets have a ton of cap space, and are in the fortunate position of having many of their key contributors either signed long-term or on cost-controlled deals. The excellent Dustin Byfuglien and leading scorer Andrew Ladd are heading into contract years, and should be priorities for extensions. Similarly, Grant Clitsome is a year away from UFA, and given his solid 3.6% Corsi Rel, could also be extended now to keep the cost of his contract reasonable. Forward Drew Stafford, a key piece arriving from Buffalo in the Kane deal, is an unrestricted free agent; he did produce 19 points in 26 games with Winnipeg, but his poor two-way numbers (-3.4% Corsi Rel) and age (he will turn 30 early next season) suggest that the cost to sign him on the open market might not be worth it. To my thinking, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff could put that money to better use on a scoring option that’s either younger or more potent than Stafford. Other UFAs include 26-year-old Michael Frolik (who had a far better season driving possession than Stafford, and will likely be cheaper to retain), deadline acquisition Jiri Tlusty (who played poorly in 24 games in Winnipeg, but is still young and talented), and depth forward Lee Stempniak. Next season, key players including Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, Adam Lowry, and Hutchinson will be due new deals, so the flexibility Cheveldayoff enjoys now might be short-lived. The 2016 offseason may also feature a decision on an extension for Pavelec, who will be 28; I’ve been wrong about goalies before (see: Mason, Steve), but assuming the Czech’s play in 2015-16 reverts toward his career averages, and with the highly-regarded Connor Hellebuyck waiting in the wings, Winnipeg may elect to let his deal expire. More generally, I think the Jets have to assume that their goaltending will be closer to league average next season, and that even if coach Paul Maurice is able to maintain the stellar defensive work of the 2014-15 team, they’ll probably allow more goals than they did this year. Where the Winnipeg lineup could really use work, honestly, is on offense. One wonders, of course, whether the trade of winger Evander Kane will haunt the Jets down the road. Although Kane’s situation in Winnipeg had become untenable, its handling reflected just as poorly on the team as it did on the player, and one wonders how much the Jets will regret having traded a 23-year-old with 222 points in 361 career NHL games. But what’s done is done. If the cost of Winnipeg’s newfound commitment to defense is a lower rate of shot creation, so be it, but they’d be well-served to explore the market for a true scoring threat.

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2014-15 NHL Season Review: Atlantic Division, Playoff Teams

We’re moving through our look back at the NHL season that was for all 30 teams. If you missed them, check out my posts on the non-playoff teams from the Metropolitan, Atlantic, Central and Pacific Divisions, as well as my review of the Metropolitan playoff teams. Today we look back at the four playoff squads from the Atlantic.

Montreal Canadiens

They say it’s better to be lucky than good, but when I look back over the past decade of the Montreal Canadiens, I’m not convinced. Like many other old-guard NHL franchises, the Habs have had mixed success in building rosters with the skill sets needed to win in today’s game, and in adjusting to the parity introduced by the salary cap. Since the 2005 lockout ended, Montreal has been a poor defensive team, regularly finding themselves at the bottom of the league in shots against, and apart from a solid 52.4% score-adjusted Fenwick under Jacques Martin in 2010-11 and the odd 54% SAF season they enjoyed in the lockout-shortened 2012-13, they’ve been a below-average possession team as well. Yet this hasn’t really showed up in their results: the Canadiens have made the playoffs in eight of the last 10 seasons, winning their division three times and twice advancing to the Eastern Conference Final. And while sports are most definitely about winning, a closer look makes me wonder whether the direction the Habs have taken is the best one.

In 2007-08, Montreal won the Northeast with 104 points despite an abysmal 47.2% SAF and the fifth-highest rate of shots against in the NHL; they would be helped considerably by 0.928 play from a rookie goalie named Carey Price, but also by a lethal power play and 8.7% team shooting at even strength. In 2009-10, Montreal barely scraped into the postseason, and while they advanced to the Conference Final, some perspective is in order: when people speak of your first- and second-round victories years later as upsets of historic proportions, it probably means your team wasn’t very good. Coming out of the 2012 lockout, the Habs actually had a strong possession team to go along with their division title, but the first round of the playoffs featured the kind of one-sided puck luck that sometimes trips up good teams in the postseason: the Canadiens dropped an often-ugly series in five games despite dominating the play throughout. Whatever coach Michel Therrien did to yield such strong possession numbers that season, he stopped doing it after that series. In the 2013-14 campaign, Montreal rode brilliant play from Price to 100 points and third place in the Atlantic; the Habs that year were a poor possession team (48.1% SAF), and despite Price’s play they were actually outscored at even strength over the season. Though they once again reached the playoffs’ third round, they needed another improbable upset (this time over the President’s Trophy-winning Bruins in the second round) to get there, and with Price injured in Game 1 of the Conference Final, they bowed out in six games.

In 2014-15, the Habs were pretty much the same team they’d been the season before: 49.1% score-adjusted Fenwick, sixth-worst rate of Corsi against per 60 5-on-5 minutes, and mediocre offensive production. Montreal’s 214 goals ranked a dismal 20th in the NHL. The difference, of course, was Price: with an unbelievable 0.943 even-strength Sv% in 66 games, the Habs goaltender was the reason a poor defensive team allowed the fewest goals in the league this season. To put his performance into some perspective, Price faced 1,536 shots at 5-on-5 this season; if you replace his play with league-average (i.e., 0.923) goaltending, Price would have allowed 118 goals instead of 88 at even strength. Thirty more goals against would’ve pushed Montreal down to 18th in the NHL, and left them with an even goal differential rather than the sixth-best differential in the league. They almost certainly wouldn’t have won the Atlantic, and may not have even made the playoffs. If you’re wondering why Price took home the Hart and Vezina Trophies this week, this is why.

While it’s hard to complain too much about perennial 100-point seasons, the contrarian view of the Canadiens has to be this: if otherworldly goaltending is the only thing separating the Habs from mediocrity (or worse), and they can’t expect to win unless Price is brilliant, aren’t they effectively wasting his work (and that of P.K. Subban, another singular talent) through poor coaching and iffy roster construction? On the positive side, GM Marc Bergevin made real improvements to the team’s blueline this season, signing the useful Tom Gilbert to a reasonable free-agent deal and acquiring the excellent Jeff Petry from Edmonton at the deadline. The offseason swap of Daniel Briere for P.A. Parenteau should have been a good one for Montreal, but injury and Therrien’s lineup decisions made Parenteau a frequent scratch towards the end of the season. On the other hand, Bergevin inexplicably traded key prospect Jiri Sekac to Anaheim for depth forward Devante Smith-Pelly; Sekac is just 22, and played well in a bottom-six role during the Ducks’ playoff run. Other curious choices by the Canadiens include their insistence on burying the talented Lars Eller on the fourth line, and limiting Alex Galchenyuk’s time at center. In the coming offseason, Bergevin has a fair bit of work to do, including RFA deals for Galchenyuk and key blueline prospects Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi, and working on an extension for Tomas Plekanec, who is entering a contract year. The six-year extension recently given to Petry is a coup for Montreal, as he and Subban should effectively anchor the Habs’ defense for years to come. The depth behind these two, however, is less certain: Gilbert is 32, and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, Andrei Markov will turn 37 next season, and Alexei Emelin, well, just isn’t very good. Up front, the Canadiens have a nice core group of players, including 37-goal-scorer Max Pacioretty, 23-year-old Brendan Gallagher, and David Desharnais, along with Eller and Galchenyuk. Between these players, and a number of prospects with solid NHL potential, the foundation of a strong team is there. What remains to be seen is whether Bergevin and Therrien can find effective ways to use them.

Tampa Bay Lightning

If you weren’t paying close attention, you might have been surprised by Tampa Bay’s strong season, which took them back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since their championship season in 2004. As recently as the 2012-13 season, poor goaltending and defending had made the Lightning one of the worst teams in the NHL, and in the nine seasons between the 2005 lockout and this one, they had won just two playoff series (both during their Conference Final run in 2010-11). And after they limped through a dismal first-round sweep against Montreal in the 2014 playoffs, it was fair to wonder whether their 2013-14 – in which they’d finished with 101 points and a strong 51.6% score-adjusted Fenwick – was a fluke. Now, after seeing them finish 2014-15 with the league’s third-best possession numbers (53.8% SAF) behind elite defensive play, after seeing them lead the league in goal-scoring, and seeing them come within two wins of the Stanley Cup after a 108-point season, it’s probably fair to say that the Bolts are for real. If you buy into my theory about high-scoring teams in low-scoring seasons, the Lightning look to be constructed for success: behind that superb shot-prevention work, Tampa overcame a mediocre 0.921 season from goalie Ben Bishop to finish 12th in goals against, and their solid shot creation and offensive talent up front made them the deadliest attack in a league that didn’t have many. Lest anyone point to their 9.1% shooting at even strength and wonder if their offense is sustainable: over the past three seasons, Tampa has shot 8.7% at 5-on-5 (second only to Anaheim), and no team in the league has scored more goals.

And, honestly, while Tampa fans are likely still stinging from the lost chance at a second championship for the franchise, there’s every reason to think that 2015 won’t be the last shot this group gets. On one hand, GM Steve Yzerman has his work cut out in making the math of the salary cap add up: Tampa is crushed against the limit right now, and not a lot of money is coming off the books. Of the players expected to take the ice for the Lightning in 2015-16, only Vladislav Namestnikov is due a new contract as an RFA at this time. Things are likely to get trickier, however, a year from now. Stamkos is entering the final year of his current deal, and will likely receive a massive extension very soon: with 276 career goals at just 25, Stamkos is the face of this franchise, and will almost certainly be one of the highest-paid players in the game as he enters his prime. Also due new deals in 2016 will be RFAs Alex Killorn, Nikita Kucherov, and Cedric Paquette, all of whom figure to be part of the core for the Bolts. These deals might be tough to work out with only $8.1M (in the form of Braydon Coburn and Mattias Ohlund) coming off the books at that time. With one of the best goaltending prospects in the sport in Andrei Vasilevskiy waiting to take over in net, Yzerman could look for savings by dealing away Bishop’s nearly $6M cap hit. He could also explore a trade for a veteran forward like Valtteri Filppula, with top prospect Jonathan Drouin ready to make the leap to the NHL. Still, the skill the Bolts’ GM has shown in assembling this team so quickly should give Tampa fans reason for confidence.

Detroit Red Wings

Given the media circus that attended Mike Babcock’s decision to leave the Red Wings’ bench for the challenge of creating a winner in Toronto, Detroit’s 2014-15 season almost feels like an afterthought. But amid the speculation about Babcock’s potential impact in Canada’s self-proclaimed hockey capital, the immediate future in Detroit is arguably just as interesting, and with Grand Rapids Griffins boss Jeff Blashill stepping into Babcock’s shoes, it’s worth taking a look at the task he’ll be taking on.

On one hand, of course, Babcock will be an impossible act to follow. His Wings teams from 2005 through 2009 were absurdly dominant relative to other teams in the ten years since the salary cap was instituted, but the caveats surrounding that dominance are important to note: the core of Babcock’s great Detroit squads was assembled prior to the cap, and GM Ken Holland was adept at the front-loaded, cap-circumventing deals that the 2012 lockout brought to an end, which helped to extend the Wings’ greatness a bit longer. Blashill, of course, will not have either of these advantages, and as the 2005-09 core has receded into the past, so has Detroit’s status as an elite team. The Red Wings have been a solid but far from dominant possession team since Nicklas Lidstrom’s retirement in 2012, and the decline of their offensive output has made them a perennial bubble team. Essentially, Babcock managed the loss of Lidstrom by turning Detroit into a deeply conservative, low-event squad; this protected the goaltenders very effectively, but carried a significant cost to the team’s attack. In 2014-15, Detroit was once again a strong possession squad (52.2% score-adjusted Fenwick) with superb defensive numbers, but their offense apart from the power play was almost non-existent. Through 62 games, the Wings were in the thick of the Atlantic title race, but a 7-10-3 finish pushed them down to third place, just a point ahead of Ottawa, and a 2-0 shutout in Game 7 of the first round in Tampa Bay brought their season to a close.

Detroit’s reputation for maintaining a deep prospect system through thick and thin is not exaggerated, and the Wings’ future is arguably very positive. In the near term, of course, Detroit will go as far as Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk can carry them. Though both are in their mid-30s, and Datsyuk has struggled with injuries for two seasons running, they contributed a combined 43 goals and 131 points in 2014-15, and are superlative two-way players. Winger Tomas Tatar, just 24, led the Red Wings with 29 goals, and 25-year-old Gustav Nyquist contributed 27. With 36 points and a 2.2% Corsi Rel, rookie Riley Sheahan had a solid season, as did prospect Tomas Jurco (2.7% Corsi Rel in 63 games), and promising youngsters Teemu Pulkkinen, Dylan Larkin, and Anthony Mantha are on the way. On the blueline, two of Detroit’s biggest minutes-eating defensemen were two of its worst: Niklas Kronwall had a brutal -5.3% Corsi Rel, and Jonathan Ericsson had an ugly -4.9%. Danny DeKeyser and Kyle Quincey fared somewhat better in easier deployment. The offensive skills of Marek Zidlicky, brought over at the trade deadline, yielded impressive two-way numbers, but as a 38-year-old UFA, it’s hard to imagine Zidlicky returning to Detroit next season. The Wings could look to the free-agent market to add a capable defenseman, and will certainly hope that Xavier Ouellet can make a contribution in Detroit next season. Where things are most interesting is in goal. Presumptive starter Jimmy Howard is under contract at a hefty $5.3M cap hit for four more seasons, but after a disappointing regular season (0.922 5-on-5 Sv%), Howard lost his starting job down the stretch to rookie Petr Mrazek, and did not see the ice in the postseason. Given his middling AHL numbers and limited NHL action, it’s unclear whether Mrazek is ready to assume a starter’s role at this level, and the goalie depth in Detroit’s system is fairly thin. As such, while I’d bet on the future being successful for the Red Wings, it is filled with compelling questions.

Ottawa Senators

When you immerse yourself in the minutae of the NHL regular season, a lot of things can start to feel predictable. The Blackhawks will usually be good, the Bruins and Canadiens will usually get good goaltending, Alex Ovechkin will score a lot, the Kings and Devils will score a little, the Oilers and Sabres will be terrible, and so on. When it comes to figuring out the Senators, though, it seems that you can toss the usual analysis out the window: every time I’m ready to leave this team’s moldering corpse by the side of the road, they do something improbable to surprise me. Back in 2011-12, between their 50.6% score-adjusted Fenwick, 8% 5-on-5 shooting, and 0.922 even-strength goaltending, Ottawa by every appearance was a thoroughly mediocre team with one singularly interesting player (Calder and Norris winner Erik Karlsson) and a highly-regarded head coach in Paul MacLean. The Sens finished that season with 92 points, grabbing the last playoff spot in the East, and lost a fairly forgettable first-round series against the Rangers. Heading into the abbreviated season in 2013, I didn’t expect much from this group, and with starting goalie Craig Anderson losing half the season to injury, top center Jason Spezza lost for all but five games, and Karlsson suffering a severed Achilles early in the campaign, it was easy to write them off. But the weirdness of the short season struck again, as MacLean coached the team to a 53% SAF (winning a Jack Adams in the process), Karlsson made a miraculous recovery in time for the stretch run, and Ottawa snatched the 7th seed in the East. After they advanced past the Canadiens in the playoffs and added ex-Ducks sniper Bobby Ryan in the offseason, the Sens suckered many (myself included) into expecting more from them in 2013-14. Yet after an acrimonious break with former captain and franchise icon Daniel Alfredsson, and amid rampant speculation that owner Eugene Melnyk was (a) broke and (b) employing Ukrainian hackers to erase the work of a critical investigative blogger, Ottawa fell on their faces that season, finishing 11th in the East with 88 points. Hiding in their gaudy 2012-13 possession differential was an enormously high rate of shots allowed; a half-season of 0.941 play from Anderson had, essentially, disguised a very porous defense. In 2013-14, Anderson and backup Robin Lehner regressed back toward league average, and Ottawa finished the season with the fourth-highest number of goals against in the NHL.

After a lackluster 10-11-6 start in 2014-15, MacLean was fired in early December, and was replaced by assistant Dave Cameron. (Insofar as the Senators had a 1.002 PDO and an ugly 47.2% score-adjusted Corsi at the time, it’s hard to say that MacLean was particularly unlucky.) On February 18, Ottawa sat at 22-23-10, well outside the playoff picture; that night, in a home game against Montreal, the Sens started an unknown goaltender named Andrew Hammond in the absence of the injured Anderson and Lehner. With a single 0.910 season in the AHL under his belt, there was no reason to think that his 42-save win over the Habs was a sign of anything to come, or that the Sens’ season was about to turn around. But because this is Ottawa, that’s exactly what happened: on the strength of Hammond’s 0.941 even-strength Sv% in 24 appearances, and with improved possession numbers (51.8% score-adjusted Corsi) the Senators went an unbelievable 21-3-3 in their final 27 games, blowing past Florida, Boston and Pittsburgh to capture the first wild-card slot. In two postseason starts against the Canadiens, Hammond would stumble to a 0.907 Sv%, and the upgrade the team got by switching to Anderson wasn’t enough to overcome Carey Price, as Ottawa succumbed in six games.

Despite the great sports story that Hammond provided Ottawa in 2014-15, and the improvements in the team’s fundamentals under Cameron, it’s never easy to feel a lot of optimism about the Senators. Given the team’s history of financial limitations, GM Bryan Murray will need a deft hand this offseason. New RFA deals for Calder nominee Mark Stone and centers Mika Zibanejad and J. G. Pageau got done this week, and Murray has done well to get salary relief by moving the aging David Legwand and Lehner for a high draft pick. On the other hand, 27-goal scorer Mike Hoffman and winger Alex Chiasson remain unsigned RFAs, and Erik Condra is a UFA. As so often happens when an unheralded player rescues a team’s season with a hot streak, the Senators rewarded Hammond with a three-year extension. Next year, RFA deals will be due to defensemen Cody Ceci and Patrick Wiercioch, along with key prospect Matt Puempel. Murray’s flexibility is somewhat limited by a number of contracts to veterans with questionable future value to the team, including Chris Neil, Milan Michalek and Jared Cowen, but overall, his work in this young offseason has been strong. In short, while there is cause for cautious optimism in Ottawa, I’ve been wrong so many times about the Sens that I can only guess at what will happen next season.

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2014-15 NHL Season Review: Metropolitan Division, Playoff Teams

Now that the offseason has begun, I’m taking a look back at the 2014-15 season for all 30 NHL teams. I’ve already looked back at the non-playoff teams in the Metropolitan, Atlantic, Central, and Pacific Divisions. Today, we start our look back at the playoff squads, starting with the Metropolitan.

New York Rangers

Most teams would have a hard time considering a season that included a President’s Trophy and a Conference Final appearance a disappointment, but following a Game 7 shutout on home ice at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, it’s hard to escape the sense that New York fell short of where they wanted to go in 2014-15. Beginning with the 2014 trade that shipped Ryan Callahan and two first-round draft picks to Tampa in return for two-time Art Ross winner Martin St. Louis, the Rangers have looked like a team betting aggressively on their chances of winning a Stanley Cup in the short term. After losing to the Kings in last season’s Final (a series that was much closer than its 4-1 scoreline suggested), New York added veteran puck-moving defenseman Dan Boyle on a pricey free-agent contract, along with former Pittsburgh grinder Tanner Glass. At the trade deadline, they paid another steep price, sending two high draft picks and gifted prospect Anthony Duclair to Arizona for another top puck-moving D in Keith Yandle. As such, insofar as the Rangers gave up a significant chunk of their future in a twelve-month span, watching another team lift the Cup in 2015 had to sting.

Still, for those who were paying attention to the numbers, there was reason to believe that New York wasn’t as dominating as their record suggested. On the surface, of course, there were plenty of positives. Led by Rick Nash’s 42 goals, the Rangers were the 3rd-highest scoring team in the league, and Cam Talbot’s excellent 0.930 work in Henrik Lundqvist’s injury absence meant that New York also finished with the 3rd-fewest goals allowed. Below the surface, though, the Rangers saw a noticeable sag in their possession numbers in Alain Vigneault’s second season behind the bench, going from a solid 52.5% score-adjusted Fenwick in 2013-14 to a middling 50.2% last season. More specifically, they went from being a strong shot-creation team (58.6 Corsi for per 60 at 5-on-5, fifth in the league) with mediocre defense (53.2 Corsi against per 60), to being a mediocre offensive squad (54.4 Corsi for) with the league’s 11th-worst shot prevention (55.6 Corsi against per 60). As such, it would appear that their success in 2014-15 owed more than a bit to their league-leading 1.019 PDO. Lundqvist and Talbot provided the NHL’s fourth-best goaltending, which wasn’t unexpected (New York’s 0.931 5-on-5 team Sv% was unchanged from 2013-14), but the Rangers also sported the league’s third-highest even-strength team Sh%, at 8.8%. For a team that was 3rd-worst on this measure in 2013-14 (6.7%), this was more than a bit surprising, and it’s fair to wonder whether they’ll be able to keep it up in 2015-16.

At the trade deadline, the phrase “mortgaging the future” was used a lot to describe the Rangers, but it’s not clear that New York has set their future back significantly with the moves they’ve made. It’s obviously bad that they haven’t picked in the first round of the draft since 2012, and the Yandle deal will not look good if Duclair emerges as a star in Phoenix (or Portland or Quebec City or wherever). Moreover, apart from the intriguing Pavel Buchnevich and young defenseman Brady Skjei, New York’s prospect cupboard is pretty bare. On the other hand, the Rangers have done a commendable job of graduating prospects into their NHL lineup in recent seasons, and much of the talent on their roster is fairly young. None of Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello, Jesper Fast, J.T. Miller, Chris Kreider, Carl Hagelin, Kevin Hayes, or Derek Stepan is older than 27, and at 30, Nash likely has more productive seasons left. At 39, without a contract and coming off a disappointing playoff, St. Louis has likely played his last game in Manhattan, as the Rangers are tight against the cap and need to resign Stepan, Hagelin, Miller, and Fast. On top of that, Kreider, Hayes and Yandle are all entering contract years. GM Glen Sather may look for cap savings by trading Talbot, who has one year left at a $1.45M cap hit. Complicating this picture, of course, are some bad contracts and legitimate weakness at the blueline. Glass has two more years left at a $1.45M hit; with only one goal in 66 games and an ugly -7.9% Corsi Rel, it’s tough to find the positives in Glass’s 2014-15. On defense, New York is spending a lot of money on a group that’s not quite as good as their reputations suggest. Dan Girardi (-5.4% Corsi Rel) and Marc Staal (-4%) both struggled this season; Girardi carries a $5.5M cap hit for five more seasons, while Staal will be paid $5.7M for six more years. Captain Ryan McDonagh (-1.5%) has a $4.7M cap hit for four more seasons. Kevin Klein (-1.6% Corsi Rel) is also overpaid ($2.9M cap hit for three more years) for an average third-pairing defenseman. In heavily offensive usage, Boyle actually had a solid campaign (5.4% Corsi Rel), but at 38, his days of being an all-situations two-way guy are past. After spending his career on poor defensive teams, Yandle’s impact in his own end isn’t easy to quantify, but a blueliner of his age (28) and offensive skills is likely to be seeking a very big contract a year from now; given New York’s cap constraints, I’d be very surprised if his next deal is with the Rangers. There are plenty of reasons to expect New York to be in the mix of contenders next season, but the loss of St. Louis’s 21 goals and the team’s weakness on defense are areas of concern. In the end, 2015-16 may be yet another season in which the Rangers will only go as far as the 33-year-old Lundqvist can carry them.

Washington Capitals

Whether it’s the Capitals, the Rangers, the Penguins, or the Flyers, the Metropolitan is filled with teams that illustrate (often painfully) how difficult it really is to win the Stanley Cup. While Sharks fans like myself often bemoan our team’s annual tradition of demoralizing postseason defeats (well, until this year), it’s important to remember that other fanbases have been coping with similar frustrations for a lot longer. Though they’ve been in existence since 1974-75, Washington has the same number of championship seasons as San Jose. In two trips past the second round of the playoffs, the Capitals have been swept by Boston in the 1990 Conference Finals, and swept by the Yzerman/Fedorov Red Wings in the Cup Final in 1998. More recently, they’ve been blessed by the prime years of Alex Ovechkin’s career; with 475 career goals in 760 NHL games, and playing in an era of stifling defense and dominant goaltending, there’s a case to be made that Ovechkin is the greatest pure goal-scorer in hockey history. His brilliance, however, has not translated into postseason success for the Caps, and many of their playoff losses have been stunningly crushing. In 2009, following a regular season in which they posted tremendous possession numbers (55.3% score-adjusted Fenwick) and the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, Washington stormed back from 3-1 down to best the Rangers in a first-round matchup; from there, they split the first six games in a thrilling second-round series against Pittsburgh, and headed back to home ice for Game 7. In the deciding game, however, they delivered one of the most inexplicably flat performances I’ve ever seen, getting dominated territorially and blown out 6-2. The following season’s Capitals were one of the true juggernaut squads of the salary-cap era, winning the President’s Trophy with 121 points and scoring an astounding 318 goals. After going up 3-1 in their opening series against Montreal, Washington put an amazing 134 shots on Habs goalie Jaroslav Halak over the final three games, but only managed to beat him three times, and lost the series in seven. In 2012, the Capitals scored an unlikely upset, knocking out the defending champion Bruins in the opening round; in the second round against the Rangers, however, the Caps dropped two overtime games and delivered another listless effort in Game 7, only managing four shots on goal in the third period despite trailing and playing a poor defensive team. The following season, Washington went up 3 games to 2 in the first round against the Rangers, but failed to score in the final two games.

Given all this, it won’t be easy to convince Caps fans to look for the positives in a 2014-15 season that ended in a Game 7 loss to the Rangers. But the positives are there. For most of Ovechkin’s time in DC, the heart of Washington’s struggles has been an inability to bring competent coaching and competent goaltending together on a single team. Back when Bruce Boudreau was behind the bench, the Capitals were a solid-to-dominant possession team, but the goaltending they got from the likes of Olaf Kolzig, Jose Theodore, Semyon Varlamov, and Michal Neuvirth was mixed. By the time Braden Holtby had emerged as the Caps’ starter of the future, the team was laboring under the suspect coaching of Dale Hunter and Adam Oates. In 2014-15, however, Holtby once again delivered a strong 0.930 Sv% at even-strength, and under new head coach Barry Trotz, Washington posted a strong 52% SAF. The team’s shot prevention, so poor under Hunter and Oates, was a solid 52.6 Corsi against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, and with the strong play in net, the Capitals allowed the seventh-fewest goals in the NHL this season. Behind a league-leading 53 goals from Ovechkin, the Caps also ranked seventh in goals scored, and overall the team finished with 101 points. In the postseason, they bested a very strong Islanders squad in the first round; of note for a team with such a nightmarish history in Game 7s, Washington delivered a smothering, dominant performance in the series finale against the Isles, and Evgeni Kuznetsov’s tally with seven minutes left sent them on to the second round. Unfortunately, it’s easy to feel bad for the Capitals after how their series against the Rangers played out. Aside from being arguably the best hockey of the entire postseason, the margin between the two teams was razor-thin: in addition to a score-adjusted possession battle that was basically split (50.2% for the Caps), every game was decided by a single goal, and the seventh game was decided in overtime. If you’re a fan of the team, however, this probably isn’t how you look back at the series; you probably focus on the missed opportunities. And whether it’s the 3-1 lead they had after four games, the late lead they lost in Game 5, or the early lead they lost in Game 7, the Caps were once again unable to finish off a tightly contested series despite many chances to do so.

Oddly enough for a team carrying some monster contracts, the conclusion of Mike Green’s deal means that Washington enters the offseason with a lot of cap space to work with. On the other hand, they have a lot of work to accomplish in the next few months. Holtby, Kuznetsov, and Marcus Johansson are all important pieces of the future in DC, and all are now restricted free agents, and Andre Burakovski, Tom Wilson, Michael Latta, and Dmitri Orlov are all a year away from RFA themselves. Along with Green, Eric Fehr, Jay Beagle and Joel Ward are unrestricted free agents with uncertain futures in Washington (Fehr is most likely to be retained). With so many names needing new deals, one wonders whether the bad contracts of Brookses Laich and Orpik will hurt the Capitals down the road. But for now, the Caps can take comfort in knowing that, at last, they’re heading in the right direction again.

New York Islanders

What a difference a year can make. After years of haggling to try to build a new arena on Long Island to replace the aging Nassau Coliseum (as an Oakland A’s fan, I’ve had a lot of sympathy for Isles fans when it comes to their building), relocation to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn is now a reality for the Islanders. While I expect Twitter to break under the weight of all the Hipster Hockey jokes (e.g., will the concession stands only serve PBR tall-boys? Will the in-game music staff fire up the crowd by playing Sonic Youth and Fleet Foxes B-sides?), it really is worth pausing to marvel at how far this franchise has really come. After years of miserable seasons (New York’s playoff appearance in 2014-15 was just their third in the past 10 years), after catastrophic mismanagement under ex-GM Mike Milbury, and after embarrassments like the John Spano debacle, Rick DiPietro’s 15-year contract, and the execrable “Gorton’s Fisherman” jerseys turned them into a laughingstock, the Islanders are suddenly a young, well-constructed team on the rise, and a very fashionable pick for Cup contention in 2015-16.

A lot of credit is certainly due to Isles GM Garth Snow: whether it was due to financial limits or good sense, the former NHL goaltender long resisted the temptation to spend on the kinds of bad contracts that can keep a struggling team from truly rebuilding (see: Maple Leafs, Toronto). And last season, when Snow finally did open up his checkbook, the moves made were excellent ones. Following a surprise playoff appearance in 2012-13, New York sank to last in the Metropolitan in 2013-14, and it wasn’t hard to understand why: the loss of captain and leading scorer John Tavares to a season-ending injury during the Olympics was obviously a crushing blow, but expecting 38-year-old Evgeni Nabokov to shoulder the starting-goaltending duties was always a disaster waiting to happen, and the losses of Mark Streit (free agency) and Lubomir Visnovsky (injury) were catastrophic for the Isles’ blueline. Still, with plenty of cap space to work with, Snow was basically able to fix most of New York’s pressing needs in a single offseason. A four-year deal brought in the excellent Jaroslav Halak as a new starting goaltender, the trades for Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy instantly upgraded New York’s defense, and the signings of Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin gave the Islanders a strong second line overnight. And for much of the season, the Isles were one of the Eastern Conference’s elite teams: as late as February 27, New York sat in first place in the Metropolitan, and led the East in wins. At that time, they sported a tremendous 54.4% score-adjusted Corsi, fourth-best in the league, and their 8.3% 5-on-5 shooting ranked 10th. However, while Halak had produced an unspectacular-but-solid 0.921 Sv% to that point, backup Chad Johnson had delivered terrible 0.900 play, and New York had the league’s 8th-poorest netminding. This goaltending would come back to haunt them over the season’s final 19 games, when their Sh% was just 6.5%, third-worst among all playoff squads, and their score-adjusted Corsi dipped down to 50.5%. Behind 0.913 goaltending from Halak and Michal Neuvirth, the Isles won just six of their last 19, and dropped to third in the division. The lack of home-ice advantage would ultimately hurt, as they were dominated by the Capitals in Game 7 of their first-round series, and bid farewell to the Coliseum without having won a playoff series since 1993.

Still, even though the Isles’ season didn’t end on the best note, it’s hard not to see 2014-15 as a huge step forward, and as a sign of things to come. With the second-strongest possession season in the NHL (54.6% score-adjusted Fenwick), most of their core players locked up for a while, and plenty of depth in their prospect system, the future is very bright for this team. With 38 goals and 86 points, Tavares once again challenged for the league scoring title. Ryan Strome, just 21, added 50 points, and 24-year-old Anders Lee scored 25 goals. Winger Kyle Okposo chipped in 51 points in just 60 games. Leddy and Boychuk had the best two-way numbers on the team, and also added 19 goals and 72 points between them; unsurprisingly, Snow signed both to long-term extensions during the season. Though his defensive work as a second-line center was excellent, Grabovski was limited by concussion to just 51 games. Another important performer, Visnovsky, also battled injury throughout the season, and as a 38-year-old UFA, may not return. Offseason priorities for the front office will include new RFA deals for Lee, Brock Nelson, and defenseman Thomas Hickey, a long-term extension for Okposo (who is a year away from free agency), and either re-upping Kevin Poulin to an RFA contract or finding a new backup goaltender. Given the struggles of the Isles’ backups behind Halak, finding a more dependable second goalie could be a priority. More generally, while New York had the second-highest rate of shot creation in the league (61 Corsi per 60 5-on-5 minutes), their defensive work (54.6 Corsi against) was more mediocre; a healthy season from Grabovski would certainly help, but Snow might want to consider adding another solid defenseman to shore things up at the back.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Ever since they broke into the NHL’s elite with a division title and an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final in 2007-08, it’s been a given that the Penguins elicit strong reactions from hockey fans. Since Sidney Crosby was drafted by Pittsburgh in 2005, the NHL has made his team a focal point of their efforts to market the sport (or, less charitably, Gary Bettman et al have rammed them down the throats of national viewing audiences whether they’ve liked it or not). What’s more, for much of the past eight seasons, the team has largely lived up to the hype: besides winning the Cup in 2009, the Penguins have won three division titles, and didn’t open a playoff series on the road between 2010 and 2014. With two Hart Trophies and 853 points in 627 NHL games, Crosby has been every bit the generational talent he was expected to be, and the electrifying play of teammates Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang have made Pittsburgh tremendously exciting to watch.

Still, looking back on a season in which the Penguins (again) struggled through massive injury problems, in which bungled salary-cap management late in the season forced them to play games with just five defensemen, in which a late scoring slump very nearly cost them a playoff spot, and in which they bowed out in five quick games in the first round of the postseason, a part of me wonders if I’m looking at a team in decline. With 28 goals and 84 points, Crosby was his usual self, challenging for the scoring title until the season’s last day, and Malkin and offseason acquisition Patric Hornqvist combined for 53 goals and 121 points. Prior to having his season ended by a severe concussion in late March, Letang was having a Norris-worthy campaign, with 11 goals and 54 points (along with a 4.7% Corsi Rel). 21 goals from Brandon Sutter somewhat offset his terrible two-way play as the team’s ostensible checking center. Unfortunately, this was the extent of the good news on offense: despite being one of the NHL’s most prolific attacks in recent seasons, Pittsburgh finished a dismal 19th in goals scored in 2014-15. Defensively, things were a bit better, as new coach Mike Johnston got excellent shot suppression work from his team, and Marc-Andre Fleury turned in a solid 0.927 campaign. But late-season injuries to Malkin and Hornqvist hit the Penguins’ attack hard: over the final 15 games of Pittsburgh’s season, their even-strength Sh% dropped to 4.2% and the goaltending sagged to 0.919, and despite a 54% score-adjusted Corsi in those games, they won just four times (including two wins over Arizona and one over Buffalo). Letang was followed onto the injured list by Christian Ehrhoff and promising rookie Derrick Pouliot, and with Maatta missing all but 20 games of the season and Simon Despres traded at the deadline, the skeleton-crew blueline that started the postseason was no match for a strong Rangers squad.

As trite as it is for a sports analyst to reference Moneyball, Billy Beane speaks in one section of the book about constantly looking for ways to improve your team (i.e., “always be upgrading”). And when I try to diagnose what’s gone sour in Pittsburgh in recent years, this is the idea I keep coming back to: at some point during the past six Cup-less seasons, the Penguins went from trying to improve on their championship lineup to trying to recapture something intangible from 2008 and 2009. Between 2009-10 and 2011-12, Pittsburgh bought into Dan Bylsma’s fast-paced, possession-oriented style, assembled one of the top shutdown lines in hockey by bringing Jordan Staal together with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, bolstered their defense by giving a greater role to Letang, signing Paul Martin in free agency, and drafting an array of promising puck-moving blueliners, and acquired young sniper James Neal. And the results over this period were tremendous: the Pens averaged 105 standings points in these three seasons, had the second-best possession numbers in the league (with a score-adjusted Fenwick of 53.7%), and scored more goals than any team other than Vancouver and Chicago. Yet they had only one playoff series win in 2010 to show for all of it, and after a particularly ugly first-round exit in 2012 – in a year in which they entered the playoffs as heavy favorites, in which they lost to their bitter rivals from Philadelphia, in which they embarrassed themselves and their owner by losing their collective composure in Game 3 – it felt as though the team’s approach shifted. In 2013, a long March winning streak left them atop the Eastern Conference heading into the postseason, but their deadline moves had had a “throwback” flavor to them: rather than trust their array of young, talented defensemen, the Penguins signed the ancient Mark Eaton (a 3rd-pairing D on their 2009 team) and traded for slow-moving Sharks blueliner Douglas Murray (a player reminiscent of Hal Gill, who had played for Pittsburgh in 2008 and 2009), they attempted to recreate Bill Guerin’s “leadership impact” by trading for Dallas captain Brenden Morrow, and they tried to recapture the magic of Marian Hossa’s 2008 acquisition by grabbing Jarome Iginla from Calgary. While the team was still very good, ultimately winning two playoff rounds before running into a wall named Tuukka Rask in the Conference Final, it wasn’t clear that any of these moves were improvements, and they had cost Pittsburgh a lot in terms of prospects and draft picks. Yet heading into the 2013-14 season, looking backward was obviously the plan for then-GM Ray Shero: aging fourth-liner Craig Adams was signed to a two-year extension, and in a disastrous move, the badly declining Rob Scuderi was brought back to Pittsburgh on a lucrative free-agent contract. Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis were also given pricey multi-year extensions despite being in their mid-30s and owing a lot of their production to the brilliance of Crosby and Malkin.

It isn’t hard to see the reasoning behind these moves; Mario Lemieux is famously loyal to ex-Penguins, and more generally, the conventional wisdom about championship teams calls for surrounding your core talent with character veterans who can provide depth and leadership. But retaining and paying vets at the expense of the prospect pipeline has carried real costs. Under Shero and current GM Jim Rutherford, the Penguins failed to anticipate the steps they would need to take to remain competitive as Crosby, Malkin, and Letang moved off of cost-controlled deals and began consuming a significant chunk of the team’s cap space. Given the contract signed by Crosby in the 2012 offseason, and the deals inked by Malkin and Letang a year later, it’s not clear that Pittsburgh had a sensible plan for retaining all three long-term: had either the massive extension to Staal or the free-agent offer to Zach Parise in 2012 been accepted, it’s likely Letang would’ve been traded. Costly deals for free agents have complicated the cap picture, but not nearly so much as the lack of young, affordable talent and depth. With the exceptions of Letang and Olli Maatta, the Penguins have shown a consistent reluctance to trust younger players, even in depth roles, and they’ve been as likely to use their promising D prospects as trade chips as to play them regularly. And in the past two seasons, the consequences of these choices have started to make themselves felt. Serious health concerns have put Dupuis’s career in jeopardy, and a poor season from Kunitz has some wondering whether he’s beginning to decline; both are owed almost $4M apiece for two more seasons. Scuderi has, predictably, struggled on the ice in his return to the Pens, and his deal has (a) blocked more capable defensemen from the lineup, and (b) prevented Pittsburgh from retaining more valuable contributors, such as Matt Niskanen or Jussi Jokinen.

With Martin and Ehrhoff likely to leave the team as free agents, forward prospect Beau Bennett and young defenseman Brian Dumoulin due new RFA deals, Maatta entering a contract year, and the team needing to fill out the depth positions at the bottom of the roster, the cap picture doesn’t get much easier in 2015-16. Factoring in the raise given to Fleury in his most recent extension, and assuming Dupuis is able to play, over $43M of the team’s $71M in cap space will be consumed by Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Fleury, Hornqvist, Kunitz, and Dupuis next season. None of these players, it’s worth noting, is younger than 27. It isn’t clear whether the Penguins’ brass would consider a buyout of Scuderi, but a year of growing pains from a young defenseman would arguably be better on the ice than another year of Scuderi. In any case, Pittsburgh’s hopes next season will likely ride on the health of Letang and Maatta, on the ability of Pouliot and other prospects to step into significant roles in the NHL, and on Rutherford’s skill in finding affordable depth players. Otherwise, the strength of the roster around Crosby and Malkin is likely to look even thinner in 2015-16. The darker cloud potentially hanging over all of this, of course, is the recent announcement that Lemieux and co-owner Ron Burkle are exploring a sale of the team. Given this organization’s . . . mixed experience with its various owners over the years, one could hardly blame the fanbase for being less than thrilled at this news. For all these reasons, the Penguins’ future in the Crosby era has never seemed so uncertain.

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