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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

2014-15 NHL Season Review: Pacific Division, Non-Playoff Teams

With the 2014-15 season wrapped up, I’m looking back at all that went right (and wrong) for all 30 teams this season. If you missed them, check out my reviews of the seasons of non-playoff teams in the Metropolitan, Atlantic, and Central Divisions. Today, we look back at four teams in what was a surprisingly weak Pacific.

Los Angeles Kings

I’ll preface my remarks here by noting that the Kings’ 2014-15 season is a topic on which most other hockey analysts disagree with me. I’ll also note that I’ve already written a bit on the subject here. That said:

Of all the surprises the 2014-15 regular season offered up, the biggest was undoubtedly the failure of the 2014 Stanley Cup champs to make the postseason. From a numbers perspective, this result was utterly bizarre. For one thing, dominant possession teams aren’t supposed to miss the playoffs, and LA’s 55.1% score-adjusted Fenwick was the league’s best. For another thing, when great possession teams don’t make it, we’re usually able to attribute it to rotten goaltending, or poor finishing; yet the Kings’ 1.002 PDO didn’t suggest an obvious problem either. Most analysts focused on Los Angeles’ terrible 13-9-15 record in 1-goal games, including a 3-15 record in overtime and shootout games. The argument, then, is that bad luck on the margins cost the Kings just enough points to keep them out of the playoffs.

For me, the far more interesting question is what Los Angeles was doing on the playoff bubble in the first place. After all, work by Phil Birnbaum suggests that the 82-game regular season is long enough, on average, to allow the most talented teams to emerge out of the randomness of individual games (also worth reading: this excellent post from SnarkSD). As such, it’s almost always true that we’ll know after 82 games who absolutely belongs (and does not belong) in playoff position; if you’re sitting on the bubble, it’s very likely you deserve to be there. While their playoff success and strong possession numbers since 2012 lead many analysts to consider the Kings an elite team, it’s incredibly unlikely that an elite (i.e., top 3 or 4 in the league) team will fail to finish at least 8th in a 14-team conference in an 82-game season in which they have an adequate PDO. It’s so unlikely that it can’t be the default conclusion as to what went wrong for LA in 2014-15.

What’s far more likely is that LA was truly a bubble team whose poor luck in close games made the difference in finishing 9th in the West rather than, say, 6th. And honestly, this shouldn’t be particularly surprising; in the four regular seasons since becoming one of the NHL’s better puck-control squads, LA has consistently underperformed their possession numbers: in 2011-12, they finished with the league’s 13th-best record and 4th-best SAF; in 2012-13, they had the league’s 7th-best record and 2nd-best SAF; in 2013-14 and 2014-15, they finished 10th and 18th in the NHL despite pacing the league in SAF in both seasons. In none of these seasons have the Kings come close to winning a division title, let alone the President’s Trophy. Which raises an even more interesting question: insofar as we only care about possession statistics because we believe they’re predictive of winning, shouldn’t we expect the Kings to, you know, win a lot of games at some point before declaring them a dominant squad? And if so, have analysts (myself included) been tempted by gaudy Fenwick differentials to overlook real flaws in this team?

It will be interesting to see whether LA’s scoring troubles continue to hold them back in 2015-16, but insofar as they remain one of the stingiest defenses in the NHL, there’s no reason to believe that they won’t figure into the playoff picture next season. GM Dean Lombardi will need a deft hand to manage the team’s salary cap situation moving forward. Key forward Tyler Toffoli and solid backup goaltender Martin Jones are restricted free agents due raises, and the terrific Anze Kopitar is likely to receive a large extension as he enters a contract year. Andrej Sekera was a deadline rental coming over from Carolina, and would be an excellent addition to the blueline with Robyn Regehr retiring. Still, at just 28, Sekera will be a hot commodity on the free-agent market, and will not come cheaply. Justin Williams and Jarret Stoll are both unrestricted free agents, and given Lombardi’s loyalty to veterans of the team’s recent Cup runs, it wouldn’t shock me if some effort was made to retain them. Complicating all of this, of course, is the Slava Voynov situation: I won’t dwell on the awful particulars, but if Voynov ultimately returns to NHL action, multi-year commitments to other players may be unmanageable if the Kings have to honor his existing deal. Moreover, LA has huge obligations to players with limited future value to the team. Lombardi’s refusal to use a compliance buyout on Mike Richards has the team on the hook for five more seasons at a $5.75M cap hit; once the face of the Flyers franchise, Richards has declined so significantly that he spent time in the AHL this season. Winger and captain Dustin Brown has just 54 total points and middling two-way numbers over the past two seasons, yet has a cap hit of almost $6M annually for seven more years. Marian Gaborik offered up 27 goals and 47 points in his first full year in LA, but given his age (33), injury history, and inconsistent production (in 2012-13 and 2013-14, Gaborik played his way off of two teams, scoring just 23 total goals), the next six years of his contract might not look great. At 32, blueliner Matt Greene has three years remaining at $2.5M per season. Insofar as all these players can be expected to decline in the coming seasons, Lombardi is facing a real challenge when it comes to keeping the team performing at the high level they’ve come to expect.

San Jose Sharks

It’s been … well, it hasn’t been a good year at all for fans of the Sharks. Losing a playoff series to your biggest rivals after a 111-point season, and doing so after blowing a 3-0 series lead, is about as big a kick in the stomach as sports has to offer. Following that loss in the spring of 2014, GM Doug Wilson and the team had a general decision to make: either address the team’s fixable problems and try to keep contending through the three-year extensions given to Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, or make a break from the 2013-14 roster core and rebuild around a new group of players.

Unfortunately, Wilson elected Door #3, neither making the difficult choices needed to begin the rebuild nor doing anything to meaningfully improve the existing team. On the plus side, a compliance buyout brought Martin Havlat’s disappointing, injury-plagued tenure in San Jose to a close – after scoring just five goals and spending much of the 2014-15 season as a healthy (?) scratch in New Jersey, Havlat’s time in the NHL may be at an end. Wilson also did well to get two draft picks in exchange for slow-footed defenseman Brad Stuart, and was wise to not match the multi-year deal offered to the declining Dan Boyle. On the down side, rather than bolster the blueline with new (preferably fleet-footed) players, Wilson resigned the plodding Scott Hannan, and chose to replace Boyle’s puck-moving skill by moving Brent Burns back to defense from the top forward line. While Burns chipped in 60 points and had a solid 3.6% Corsi Rel, his physical presence and chemistry with Thornton were missed, and his season was filled with the sorts of positional and mental errors you’d expect of someone asked to play top-four defense in the NHL for the first time in three seasons. Wilson also signed skill-free enforcer Mike Brown to a two-year contract; if that made too much sense, he compounded it by signing ex-Sabres goliath John Scott. Injuries severely limited Brown’s time on the ice in 2014-15, but when he, Scott, and Adam Burish (another terrible contract that the team buried in the minors) were available, the Sharks’ fourth line was basically unplayable. In addition to doing nothing positive to improve the roster, Wilson also publicly feuded with Thornton, ultimately stripping the team’s best two-way center and leading scorer of the captaincy.

Given the unrest and unhappiness surrounding the team entering the 2014-15 season (as an added attraction, the NHL chose to rub salt in the wounds of Sharks fans by scheduling San Jose in LA for the Kings’ banner-raising ceremony), perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the season turned into such a disappointment. You might think that a team that fell 22 points in the standings year-on-year saw a big drop in PDO, but San Jose’s 5-on-5 Sh% fell from 7.5% to 7.1%, and their goaltending was essentially the same, going from 0.922 to 0.920. Rather, it was the underlying numbers that got significantly worse. After being the NHL’s most dynamic offense in 2013-14, with 62.1 Corsi attempts for per 60 minutes, the Sharks dropped back in the pack a bit, and their middling shot-prevention numbers (56.3 Corsi against per 60) ended up 8th-worst in the league. Basically, this is what it looks like when a team’s score-adjusted Fenwick falls from outstanding (55.3% in 2013-14) to slightly above-average (51.2% last season); if a team like this isn’t scoring a lot or getting terrific goaltending, they’re probably in trouble. And after a rough February that saw them win just three games, their postseason hopes were cooked. The Sharks finished the season in the middle of the league in goal-scoring, and in the bottom third defensively. Which sounds about right.

The departure of long-time coach Todd McLellan in the weeks after the regular season only underscored the malaise lingering over the team. Thornton yet again contributed a solid chunk of offense (65 points, including a team-leading 49 assists), while sporting a team-best 9.7% Corsi Rel, and Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture scored a combined 64 goals and 137 points. Young Chris Tierney had a surprisingly effective half-season as a bottom-six center, and Melker Karlsson chipped in 13 goals as a rookie (though it’s probably safe to attribute this to playing with Thornton). Unfortunately, Marleau had a tough year, with a big drop in on-ice Sh% leading to a disappointing 19-goal season; given his age (35) and declining shot production, his days of being a dominating two-way forward could be on the wane. Two breakout performers in 2013-14 had poor campaigns as well: Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto, after being regulars in San Jose’s top six as rookies, scored just 23 combined goals in 2014-15. Defenseman Justin Braun had a difficult year (Corsi Rel -1.6%) after prior seasons of excellent play. Though he had a positive Corsi Rel in a fourth-line role, Tyler Kennedy was a frequent healthy scratch before being dealt to the Islanders. Defense prospect Mirco Mueller had a tough season in San Jose as well, and probably should have spent the year developing in the minors. Finally, Alex Stalock followed up his 0.934 work as the Sharks’ backup in 2013-14 with an awful 0.909 this season.

Despite all that’s happened, there’s a case for optimism here. The Sharks have cap space to work with (for the first time in a while), and would do well to shore up their blueline by resigning Brenden Dillon and Matt Irwin, and/or adding one of the excellent defensemen available in this year’s free-agent market. Management’s decision to buy out the remaining year of Burish’s deal, and to not bring back either Hannan or Scott, are also signs of progress. Assuming rebounds from capable players like Marleau, Hertl, Nieto, and Tommy Wingels, it’s reasonable to expect San Jose to be in next year’s playoff mix. Moreover, newly hired head coach Peter DeBoer showed tremendous intelligence in managing a deeply flawed Devils roster from 2011 to late 2014. His ability to wring tremendous defensive play from Devils teams with little talent could be a great asset to the Sharks, whose days as a legitimately strong defensive squad ended when Rob Blake began to decline. Hiring DeBoer also prevented Wilson from hiring candidates like Randy Carlyle and Adam Oates, either of whom could have turned San Jose’s defending from a tire fire into a plane crash. The biggest unresolved issue involves goaltending: Antti Niemi’s contract is up, and the Sharks appear content to let him leave in free agency. But all bets are off for 2015-16 if Wilson thinks he can ride a tandem of Stalock and Troy Grosenick (a prospect who’s played 118 total minutes in the NHL) back to the playoffs. Stalock may be an inspiring story, but his AHL numbers and the bulk of his NHL work suggest that he’s in no way capable of being a quality starter at this level. Ultimately, I’d like to believe that the worst frustrations of Sharks fans are in the past, but their goaltending situation is deeply concerning.

Edmonton Oilers

For the sheer sake of being funny, I thought about offering up a straightforward recap of the Oilers’ season that didn’t mention the 2015 draft lottery. But let’s be honest: given the scarcity of offense in the modern NHL, winning the chance to draft Connor McDavid could prove to be a franchise-changing moment for Edmonton. As the most highly-regarded prospect to enter the league since Sidney Crosby, there’s no reason to believe that McDavid is destined for anything less than a remarkable NHL career. And, as we’ve seen with Crosby in Pittsburgh and with Steven Stamkos in Tampa, generational stars have a way of attracting great coaches, elite free agents, and deadline-rental stars looking to win championships. Indeed, not long after winning the lottery, the Oilers hired long-time Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli and former Sharks head coach Todd McLellan, both of whom presumably saw the promise of the future in Edmonton.

Still, if I can be the voice of skepticism, I can’t help but look back at the past nine seasons of results since the Oil played in Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final against Carolina. In those seasons, Edmonton has finished either last or next-to-last in their division eight times (their best finish: 3rd in the terrible Northwest Division, 10 points out of a playoff spot, in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season). Given all the talent that’s been drafted into the organization in that time, I have to be the voice of the outsider and say that I’m not sure I’d trust the Oilers to manage a Taco Bell, let alone guide an NHL franchise to contention. For those who prefer their stats fancy, Edmonton hasn’t had a score-adjusted Fenwick over 47.6% in the nine years since Chris Pronger left town. For each of the past five seasons, the Oilers have been at the bottom of the league in both shot creation and shot prevention, and despite the presence of talented forwards like Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, they haven’t finished chances at a particularly high rate. Finally, over the past two seasons, the team’s goaltending has been catastrophic: in 2013-14, the two veterans expected to backstop the Oilers finished the season playing for other organizations in the AHL, and the team’s 0.902 5-on-5 Sv% in 2014-15 was the league’s worst.

Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: any Edmonton fans dreaming of a reborn NHL dynasty in Alberta, with McDavid reprising the role of Wayne Gretzky, are not thinking rationally. The simple facts of the salary cap make sustained dominance like that next to impossible, and nowadays, an awful lot has to go right to win even one Cup. For Oiler fans carrying the more modest expectation that McDavid will follow Crosby’s path and play in the Cup Finals shortly after being drafted, a bit more cold water: Crosby was joined in his second season by Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. So, unless you have a reason to think that McDavid is immediately going to be part of the deepest center corps in the NHL, it might be wise to hold off on planning the parade. And for people who think that McLellan’s arrival implies that Edmonton’s fundamentals are sure to turn around, those of us familiar with his work in the Bay Area are more skeptical. His Sharks teams haven’t been strong defensively for some time, and a coach used to having players like Nicklas Lidstrom, Rob Blake, Dan Boyle, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic on the blueline might have trouble adjusting to Nikita Nikitin and Mark Fayne being his best options. More generally, fixing the Oilers is going to be largely out of McLellan’s control. Edmonton has a dire need for a reliable starting goaltender, but few realistic options, and their defensive systems (starting with the blueline corps) are a mess. It’s been so long since we’ve seen something resembling sound two-way play from an Oilers team that I’ll have to believe it when I see it. As such, while I can believe that McDavid is destined for NHL greatness, I can’t see it happening in 2015-16.

Arizona Coyotes

Dave Tippett’s PhoenixArizona Coyotes have lived for so long on the edge of disaster that I’d wondered whether something like last season would ever happen. After making the playoffs in every season between 2009-10 and 2011-12, and making an unlikely Conference Finals run in 2012, the Coyotes narrowly missed the postseason in 2013 and 2014. Until this year, the Yotes were actually a decent possession team; in 2014-15, however, the bottom fell out, as Arizona fell to 23rd in the league with a 46.8% score-adjusted Fenwick, and finished last in the West with 56 points.

There really isn’t any mystery about where Arizona finds themselves now: awful possession numbers aside, a league-worst 5.7% Sh% at 5-on-5 and miserable 0.915 goaltending would have been enough to sink the Coyotes on their own. Given the decision to deal blueliner Keith Yandle at the deadline, there are signs that the management recognizes the need to rebuild, and with the lack of long-term contractual obligations and the team’s middling prospect depth, this is probably a good idea. Arizona has loads of cap space and a slew of high draft picks coming, and frankly every non-prospect on their roster apart from the outstanding Oliver Ekman-Larsson is very expendable. If the Yotes are smart, they could explore a deal for goaltender Mike Smith, whose recent world-championship performance disguises the fact that he’s not nearly as good as his $5.7M cap hit (due for four more seasons) would imply. Prospects for a rebuild have, of course, been complicated by the team’s battles with the city of Glendale, which have turned especially toxic in recent weeks. Bad as it might be for the fans, it’s becoming increasingly tough to envision a long-term future for this franchise in the desert. This team has always had a difficult existence, whether in Winnipeg or in Glendale, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to end anytime soon.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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

Now that the 2014-15 season is in the books, I’m taking a look back at what went right (and wrong) for all 30 teams. If you missed them, I’ve completed my reviews of the non-playoff teams in the Metropolitan and Atlantic Divisions. Today, we move to the Western Conference, and try to figure out what went wrong for the two non-playoff teams in the Central.

Dallas Stars

Apart from my own favorite team, no team disappointed me more by missing the playoffs than Dallas. A high-flying offensive club that plays a fast-paced game and drives play effectively (score-adjusted Fenwick 52.5%), the Stars are tremendous fun to watch; if you want the NHL of the future to be defined by speed and skill, you want teams like Dallas to succeed. Winger Jamie Benn captured the first Art Ross Trophy in franchise history, and Tyler Seguin had another excellent year with 37 goals; overall, only Tampa Bay scored more than the Stars’ 257 goals. Unfortunately, the good news in 2014-15 ended there, as Dallas’s 92-point season left them five back of the playoff pace.

It really isn’t difficult to see what went wrong in Texas this season: only the Oilers got poorer goaltending than the Stars’ 0.909 at even strength, and the only teams allowing more goals on the campaign were Edmonton, Arizona and Buffalo. Starter Kari Lehtonen had an ugly 0.914 season; among goalies who played at least 2,000 minutes this year, only four had poorer seasons than Lehtonen. Compounding the problem, however, was the Stars’ high-event game. Possession differential aside, Dallas’s event rate of 117.7 Corsi per 60 5-on-5 minutes led the NHL, and their rate of Corsi attempts allowed (56.3 per 60) was eighth-worst in the league. What you saw there this season, then, was a team with bad goaltending allowing way too many shots.

Still, despite missing the playoffs for the sixth time in the past seven seasons, it isn’t hard to make the case for optimism in Dallas. After a promising rookie campaign in 2013-14, hip surgery limited Valeri Nichushkin to just 8 games last season; assuming Nichushkin is back on a line with Seguin and Benn next season, he should be able to help. The Stars’ salary cap situation is good, with Shawn Horcoff’s pricey contract expiring and players like Patrick Eaves and Jhonas Enroth not due significant raises (if they’re retained at all). Nichushkin and Cody Eakin are a year away from RFA, so the team has time to plan on new deals for them. On the blueline, Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers and Jordie Benn all had solid two-way seasons, and are entering contract years. Fortunately, with a prospect system deep in defensemen, help is on the way, and depending on how those prospects develop, Dallas could consider dealing one of their veterans before next year’s deadline. On a less positive note, Lehtonen is owed almost $6M a year for the next three seasons; though the Finn is coming off the poorest season of his career, he’s never been an elite NHL starter, and at 31 it’s fair to wonder whether he’s beginning to decline. On the bright side, Dallas has strong goaltending prospects waiting in the wings, including Jack Campbell and Philippe Desrosiers. To me, then, the Stars looks like a team with young talent waiting to fill their biggest areas of need.

Colorado Avalanche

It didn’t quite carry the dramatic impact of the Great Toronto Stats Regression Collapse of 2014, but it’s probably safe for the hockey analytics community to add the Avs’ 2014-15 season to their list of spot-on predictions. Last season, you may recall that Colorado took the NHL by surprise, riding a 1.018 PDO all the way to the 3rd-best record in the regular campaign. After an offseason that saw them wave goodbye to their best two-way forward in Paul Stastny and welcome in Daniel Briere and Jarome Iginla, many analysts looked at the team’s terrible 2013-14 defensive numbers and expected the Avalanche to struggle. And, sure enough, Colorado plunged to 21st in the league standings this season, finishing well out of the playoff picture with just 90 points.

Interestingly, Colorado’s collapse occurred without much regression in their team shooting percentage or goaltending: the Avs’ 5-on-5 Sh% of 8.7% and their even-strength Sv% of 0.926 were essentially unchanged from 2013-14. Part of the problem occurred on special teams, as they went from a middling power-play to scoring the second-fewest man-advantage goals in the league. And, certainly, injuries played a part, as 2014 Calder winner Nathan McKinnon scored just 38 points in a 64-game season, Erik Johnson was limited to 47 games, and Briere disappointed with a 12-point campaign in 57 games. But honestly, the Avs’ decline is most straightforwardly a case of poor fundamentals coming back to haunt them. If Colorado was a poor shot-creation (51.7 5-on-5 Corsi for per 60 minutes) and shot-prevention (58.7 Corsi against per 60) team in 2013-14, they got substantially worse last season; their shot creation rate of 47.2 Corsi per 60 and their shot prevention rate of 62.1 Corsi against were both third-worst in the league. If you prefer this in terms of possession: Colorado had the fourth-lowest score-adjusted Fenwick in the NHL last season at 46.9%, but their 43.5% SAF this season is the sixth-worst possession season in the last 10 years. As such, rather than viewing Colorado as a team that saw its puck luck vanish, it’s probably more fair to see them as a squad that saw their shot differentials decline to near-historically-bad levels. Put another way: if you can’t make the postseason while sporting a 1.014 PDO, something is terribly wrong with your team.

The biggest danger for a team like this, of course, is that next season is the one where their puck luck really does escape them. After carrying the team with brilliant, Vezina-nominated play in 2013-14, goalie Semyon Varlamov regressed sharply last season (0.918 5-on-5 Sv%); if Varlamov delivers goaltending more in line with his career numbers, and the forwards shoot closer to league average, 21st in the NHL might be an optimistic ceiling for Colorado next season. They could, obviously, work to correct the problems underlying their shot rates, but given the decline from 2013-14 and the organization’s dismissive attitude towards analytics, it’s not clear that the Avs see the problem. Colorado’s salary cap is in fairly good shape, though with McKinnon and defenseman Tyson Barrie due big raises in a few years and key center Ryan O’Reilly a year away from UFA, that could change quickly. Briere is not likely to return, but blueline mainstay Jan Hejda is now a 36-year-old free agent; matching offers for defensemen in free agency is never cheap, but Hejda could be challenging for Colorado to replace. Also entering contract years are longtime Av Alex Tanguay (who scored 22 goals and 55 points in a bounceback season, but is 35), defenseman Johnson, and Jamie McGinn (who missed all but 19 games of 2014-15 after a 19-goal season the year before). There are bad deals on Colorado’s books – Cody McLeod had a poor two-way season and chipped in just 12 points in 2014-15, but is under contract for three more seasons, and former Red Wing and Shark Brad Stuart is owed $7.2M over the next two seasons – but the term of these deals is more problematic than the money. More worryingly, Colorado’s prospect cupboard is fairly bare at this point. Their biggest position of prospect depth is in goal, but with Varlamov locked up for four more years and backup Reto Berra under contract until 2017, the big club is fairly set at that position. As such, the Avs are in the peculiar position of being a young, talented team whose future is more precarious than it appears.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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

Now that the games are finished, we’re moving through a division-by-division recap of the 2014-15 NHL season. If you missed it, my look back at the non-playoff Metropolitan teams is here. Up next are the non-playoff teams from the Atlantic Division.

Boston Bruins

We might as well start off with one of the more shocking results from the past season: last year’s President’s Trophy winners (and Cup Finalists in 2013) failing to reach the postseason. In fairness to the Bruins, they were still alive in the morning on the last day of the season. Still, I’ve often seen Boston as a team with a knack for avoiding the consequences of their mistakes, and I had to wonder whether this year’s results were a sign that their luck was running out. For much of the past seven seasons, the Bruins have relied on otherworldly goaltending to save them from the consequences of porous defending, and have scored a ton of goals despite dealing away elite offensive talents for dubious reasons and worse returns. This season, reigning Vezina winner Tuukka Rask was once again excellent, posting a 0.931 even-strength Sv%, and their shot suppression numbers were solid: Boston surrendered just 201 goals, 8th-best in the league. At the other end of the ice, however, the loss of Jarome Iginla to free agency last year left a 30-goal hole in the Bruins’ lineup, and Boston dropped to 23rd in scoring league-wide. It didn’t help, obviously, that David Krejci was limited to 47 games by injury, but Milan Lucic and Reilly Smith contributed just 31 combined goals. More generally, the Bruins were a lot like the Los Angeles Kings, with strong defending failing to offset mediocre scoring, resulting in a campaign spent on the playoff bubble.

With Peter Chiarelli gone, new GM Don Sweeney will be tasked with navigating the path back to contention for Boston. This will not be a simple challenge; the Bruins sit in the unenviable position of needing to sign a slew of players this offseason while being crushed against the salary cap. What’s worse, many of the big contracts contributing to this problem belong to players who either have underachieved, or are in the twilights of their careers. While his work in Boston has almost certainly clinched his spot in the Hall of Fame, Zdeno Chara was limited to just 63 games this season, and at age 38, his $6.9M cap hit over the next two seasons (followed by a final year at $4M) could sting. Dennis Seidenberg has been in steep decline for years, yet is owed $12M over three more. Bridge deals to Smith and Torey Krug kick in next season, along with Krejci’s six-year extension. The latter deal, for those not aware, pays the center (who just turned 29) $7.25M in each year; Krejci is a gifted playmaker, but that’s an awful lot of money for someone with 117 career NHL goals and less-than-stellar defensive numbers. Further complicating the cap math is the $9M hit for Lucic and Chris Kelly. Defenseman Dougie Hamilton and forward Ryan Spooner are key pieces for the future, and both need new deals, and Carl Soderberg (one of the team’s leading scorers last season) is a UFA. Sweeney could look for cap savings by trading away a veteran like Brad Marchand or Loui Eriksson, though that may not sit well with a fanbase still stinging from the Tyler Seguin and Johnny Boychuk trades. Either way, the path back to the NHL’s elite is far from clear for Boston, and this should be an interesting offseason to watch.

Florida Panthers

Charting the course of the Panthers organization is never an easy task: in addition to being a low-profile team playing in a non-traditional market, the Cats have struggled on the ice for most of their 21 seasons, with just four playoff appearances and three series wins (all of which came in 1996) as a franchise. In recent seasons, Florida won an unlikely Southeast Division title in 2011-12 (they lost in seven games in the first round to New Jersey, in one of the least watchable playoff series I can remember), and followed that up with two dreadful campaigns that saw them finish either 29th or 30th in the league. Still, under the surface, there were reasons for optimism heading into this season. With a score-adjusted Fenwick of 49.3% in 2013-14, and excellent shot-prevention numbers, the Panthers were not as fundamentally weak as their record suggested; their troubles that season arose rather from low scoring and poor goaltending. The situation in net was stabilized by the return of Roberto Luongo, and with the arrival of first-overall pick Aaron Ekblad (and the hiring of the excellent Brian MacDonald as an analytics lead), the 2014-15 season showed the hockey world hints of real progress in South Florida. The Panthers spent much of the season lurking on the edges of the playoff bubble, and if not for Ottawa’s late surge, it’s possible they would have had a chance to grab the final Eastern playoff spot. As it happened, they finished with 91 points, seven back of Pittsburgh. Still, it’s worth noting the progress that was made: Florida gained 25 points on their 2013-14 finish, and did so with a 0.996 PDO. They were once again a stellar defensive team, finishing with a solid 50.8% SAF, and Luongo provided excellent 0.932 work in goal. However, the Panthers again struggled to score goals, a serious problem they’ll need to address if they want to work their way into real contention.

On the bright side of things, the Panthers have loads of cap space for filling out their roster, and key pieces like Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, and Brandon Pirri are years away from unrestricted free agency. This offseason may feature an important decision about defenseman Brian Campbell, who’s entering a contract year in 2015-16; Campbell has been a stalwart through some very lean years in Florida, and he’s one of very few blueliners who legitimately earns his $7.1M salary, but at 36, he probably doesn’t have anything more than a transitional role in the Panthers’ plans. Still, given GM Dale Tallon’s work in last year’s free agency period, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Campbell extended. A year ago, Tallon offered multi-year deals to players including professional coattail-rider Dave Bolland (in 53 games last season, Bolland scored just 6 goals, and he has a $5.5M cap hit for four more years), ex-Boston enforcer Shawn Thornton (you know an offer is bad when the Bruins won’t match it to keep a player they like), 37-year-old defenseman Willie Mitchell, and 31-year-old Jussi Jokinen (who scored just 8 goals in the first season of a four-year, $16M deal). Given Florida’s fairly open cap these days, these deals are far from crippling. In a few years, when the Panthers’ young core are owed market-rate salaries, it may be a different story.

Toronto Maple Leafs

As we’ve come to expect from the self-declared center of the hockey universe, sportswriters in Toronto have spent much of the past few weeks focused not on silly distractions like the last two rounds of the NHL playoffs, but rather on happenings involving their beloved (?) Leafs. After a disastrous season that saw them finish with just 68 points, they managed to set the hockey world abuzz in May with the hiring of Red Wings and Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock to run the Leafs’ bench next season. The hiring has, of course, been dissected ad nauseum (including by me), but before we speculate on its ultimate impact, it’s probably worth taking a look back and considering some context.

The 2014-15 season saw the final, ugly conclusion of the Randy Carlyle/Dave Nonis era in Toronto, as Carlyle was fired in early January amid a 2-7 skid, and GM Nonis was let go after season’s end. For many fans, and certainly for analytically-inclined observers, both moves were long, long overdue. Interestingly, at the time of Carlyle’s dismissal, the Leafs were the second-highest scoring team in the NHL, and were sporting a 1.016 PDO thanks to scorching 9.5% team shooting. Of course, they’d also given up more shots than any team not from Buffalo, and allowed more goals than all but four teams. Their score-adjusted Corsi, unsurprisingly, was a brutal 44.6%. Whatever else you can say about Carlyle’s work in Toronto, you generally knew what to expect from it. Still, after last season’s stretch-run collapse and the spotlight it shone on the team’s woeful defending, and with Toronto treading water at 21-16-3 and the goaltending at a less-than-stellar 0.921, it’s hard to blame the Leafs’ brass for deciding not to put their players or their fans through another ugly finish. By the time of his dismissal, booing and the sight of jerseys being tossed onto the ice emphasized how toxic a figure Carlyle had become to Toronto’s fans, and firing him was at least a signal that the team would head in a different direction. It was not, however, enough to avert another second-half collapse. Into Carlyle’s place went former Panthers boss Peter Horachek, and down in the standings went Toronto; under Horachek, the Maple Leafs went just 9-28-5. Some have suggested that the Leafs’ fundamentals improved after Carlyle’s departure, but the data paint a starker picture: in the final 42 games of the season, Toronto’s score-adjusted Corsi was just 46.1%, and they remained one of the league’s more porous defenses, allowing over 57 Corsi attempts against per 60 5-on-5 minutes. Where things got messy for Toronto was in the percentages; following Horachek’s appointment, only one team had a poorer even-strength Sh% than Toronto’s 5.7%, and their team Sv% of 0.915 was fifth-worst in the league.

As far as the future, a lot will depend on whether the Leafs can resist the temptation to postpone their rebuild, hoping instead that Babcock can find a way to drag the existing roster back into the postseason. While Carlyle was doubtless an anchor on the potential of his team, it’s naive to think that the Leafs as constituted are a capable team in search of good coaching. For one thing, Horachek was able to coach a thin Panthers roster to solid possession numbers (49.8% score-adjusted Corsi) in 66 games in 2013-14; that he couldn’t repeat those results with a higher-priced Leafs lineup suggests that the lineup is a non-trivial part of the problem. If Toronto is smart, they’ll realize that their best chances of serious contention will likely occur a few years from now, and that they need to get younger and cheaper today to best serve those chances. If it were up to me, I’d take the plunge on getting serious value for James van Riemsdyk (a good player on a great contract) and Phil Kessel (who’s owed a ton of money going forward, but whose scoring ability is a rare commodity in today’s NHL), and do everything I could to shed the bad deals given to Joffrey Lupul, Dion Phaneuf, Stephane Robidas, Leo Komarov, and Tyler Bozak. On the assumption that the team won’t contend for a few years, the goaltending depth in their prospect pool probably means that one of James Reimer or Jonathan Bernier should go as well (insofar as he’s further away from unrestricted free agency, Bernier is probably the more valuable trade chip). It goes without saying that moves like this will make for a miserable 2015-16 season. But the additional cap space, draft picks and prospects will all be worth it when the Leafs are a rising team looking to build around Nazem Kadri, William Nylander, Jake Gardiner, and Morgan Reilly. The question is whether the Leafs will have the patience to see that process through.

Buffalo Sabres

There’s really not much to say about Buffalo’s 2014-15, other than that they challenged our understanding of how bad an NHL team can be. With just 54 points, the Sabres finished the campaign with the league’s worst record, just like the season before. To get a sense of how bad they were, though, their score-adjusted Fenwick of 37.6% was the worst full-season measure in the 10 years we’ve been able to track that statistic. No other team has finished a season with a SAF lower than 41%. What’s more, you have to give the Sabres some extra credit: it’s one thing to put yourself in the “worst teams in NHL history” discussion, but it’s something else to do so in consecutive seasons. The second-worst SAF in the past 10 years? Buffalo’s 41.5% from 2013-14. Not that I’m accusing any team of tanking their season intentionally to try to draft a generational talent, but … well, if Buffalo set out this season to maximize their chances of landing Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, well done indeed.

The immediate future here is, honestly, hard to speculate on. With Eichel and a capable coach in Dan Bylsma on board for next season, as well as a healthy Evander Kane, it’s hard to imagine Buffalo being worse than they were this year. As far as the rest of the roster, evaluating underlying numbers on a team like the Sabres is largely pointless, and it’s likely we’ll see a new goaltending tandem there next season (would you pay UFA money for Anders Lindback or Matthew Hackett?). They’re also paying Matt Moulson and Cody Hodgson nearly $40M over the next four seasons, which isn’t ideal. Eichel and Kane will most likely make the Sabres more interesting to watch, and there is help coming from the prospect pool, but I’d guess it’ll be a few years yet before they’re a playoff team again.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments