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.
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.
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.
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.
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.