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.
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.
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.