With less than a month before the start of the season, every hockey fan with a public forum is starting to trot out predictions. While I’m more excited than anything to just see some games, given that this is a site about, you know, predicting hockey outcomes, I’d be remiss not to offer my own. Some of the experts offer team-specific previews, but that seems like an awful lot of work; my previews are going to come at the division level instead. And the probability theorist in me thinks player projections and predictions of specific team finishes are most likely a fools’ errand. So, my look at the coming season will focus on predicting which teams will make the playoffs.
In case you missed it, my preview of the Atlantic Division is here. Today, we turn to the Metropolitan Division.
The Canes were an interesting team last season, though probably not in a way they’d have liked. After a strong start that had them in first place in the Southeast into March, Cam Ward was lost to injury, and the Hurricanes collapsed down the stretch, finishing well out of the playoff picture. This was a rough hand for what was actually a pretty decent team; unsurprisingly for a squad with two-way monster Jordan Staal centering its second line, Carolina played a good possession game in 2013 (Fenwick Close 51.1%), and Ward is a capable goaltender when healthy. Eric Staal remains one of the league’s best centers, and Alex Semin should offer good production from the wing. Nevertheless, the depth of this team is a concern, and their blueline is very weak; in spite of their strong possession statistics, the Hurricanes allow a ton of shots, and as such they ask a lot of their goaltending. Assuming reasonable health over the season, I’d expect Carolina to be on the bubble for one of the last playoff spots. But I think the Canes will be OUT.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Along with Detroit, the Blue Jackets are making the move over to the Eastern conference as part of the league’s realignment, and will probably wish they were still a part of the Wings-less Central. Columbus made a spirited run late in the year, falling just short of the playoffs, on the back of Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky, and though there’s reason for optimism here – the Jackets are now run by Jarmo Kekalainen, who is wicked smaht, and it’s never bad to have Marian Gaborik in your lineup – Bobrovsky’s brilliant play disguised the fact that the team in front of him was awful. The fact that Columbus had the fifth-worst Fenwick Close in the league (45.4%) was not surprising, given the sorry state of their defense corps, and I don’t believe that they’ll see a repeat of last year’s goaltending performance over 82 games. The Jackets will be OUT.
New Jersey Devils
Going into last season, some hockey observers worried that the abbreviated schedule would produce some strange results, whereby a good team could see their season doomed by a few weeks of bad luck. No team provided a better example of this than New Jersey. Despite falling just two wins short of the Stanley Cup in 2012, the Devils finished well out of the playoffs last year. Even more bizarre: the Devils were actually a very good team last season. With a Fenwick Close of 55%, and an average shot differential of over 5 per game, they were actually the best possession team in the Eastern Conference. They accomplished this by allowing fewer shots per game than any team in the league, playing the sort of low-event, unwatchable hockey that’s won them three Cups. So what went wrong? For one, they had the 3rd-lowest even-strength shooting percentage in the league; for another, in yet another bizarre twist, a team backstopped by two veteran goaltenders (including one certain Hall of Famer) was undone by terrible play in net.
Since then, it’s been an . . . interesting offseason. The hockey world was, of course, stunned by the abrupt defectionretirement of star winger Ilya Kovalchuk, and GM Lou Lamoriello surprised some observers by showering an enormous sum of cash on over-the-hill free agent Ryane Clowe. On the plus side, new ownership is in place and the Devils’ financial future would appear to be brighter. Even better, Lamoriello bought out backup goalie Johan Hedberg and landed Vancouver star Cory Schneider on draft day. To use an analogy, replacing Hedberg with Schneider is like trading in a 1986 Ford Escort for a new Lamborghini Murcielago; in just over 100 NHL appearances, Schneider has been phenomenal. No one expects the Devils to score many goals this season; let’s get that out of the way. On the other hand, over a full schedule, I’d expect New Jersey’s strong possession game to play a greater role in their finish, and Schneider should bolster their goaltending considerably over last season. It won’t be pretty, but the Devils will be IN.
New York Islanders
2013 was a breakthrough year for the Isles, who ended a lengthy playoff drought by fending off Winnipeg for the 8th seed, and proceeded to thoroughly rattle the top-seeded Penguins before succumbing in a six-game series loss. With these events, as well as new captain John Tavares establishing himself as a legitimate star and a move off the island to Brooklyn coming in a few years, there’s actually some reason for optimism. New York’s success was built on a solid possession game, specifically on puck movement by the defense corps. Unfortunately, a key member of that corps, former captain Mark Streit, is now plying those skills in Philadelphia. Still, the Islander lineup is filled with young, quality players who are only likely to get better. The goal crease is a major question mark, with 38-year-old Evgeni Nabokov expected to be the team’s #1. Still, this may not be as big a deal as people think. In addition to strong team possession numbers, the Isles were actually a pretty solid shot-prevention team as well, allowing fewer shots per game than teams like Boston and San Jose. The battle for the last few playoff spots in the East will likely be very interesting. New York will be in that bubble, but if I have to pick, I’d say the Isles will be IN.
New York Rangers
In spite of their middling regular season and second-round playoff exit, the Rangers were a decent team last year (if not quite deserving of the preseason Stanley Cup expectations). I could go on about their depth on forward and defense, or about the top-end skill they have in Rick Nash. But all you really need to know is this: the Rangers were one of the best possession teams in the NHL last season (Fenwick Close 53.4%), and they have the best goaltender in the game. The Rangers will be IN.
The Flyers were a strange team last season. In spite of their deep, skilled forward corps, Philadelphia was actually pretty mediocre at generating shots; in spite of their poor possession statistics (Fenwick Close 48.5%) and shaky blueline, they prevented shots on goal at the same rate as Boston. And they were actually a top-five team in both penalty killing and power-play efficiency. Aside from their weak possession game, the best explanations for why Philadelphia missed the playoffs were bad luck (for all their talent, the Flyers only shot 7.9% as a team at even-strength) and shaky goaltending (they rode Ilya Bryzgalov like a mule last season, and were rewarded with a 0.900 save percentage). Since then, Bryzgalov and his gargantuan contract have departed via buyout, and two former captains have joined Philadelphia’s lineup: Vincent Lecavalier and Mark Streit. Lecavalier, though not the player he once was, should still offer an upgrade on the second line over bought-out Daniel Briere, and Philly’s need for a top-4 defenseman likely makes Streit’s new contract a decent investment (for now). Of greater concern is (unsurprisingly) the goaltending situation. Former Calder winner Steve Mason was brought in at the trade deadline from Columbus, and Chicago backup Ray Emery rejoined the Flyers in the offseason. Emery looked good in limited action last season, but playing behind a deep two-way team like the Hawks will make a lot of goalies look good, and his age and injury history are a significant concern. Mason, apart from about half of his rookie season, has had an awful NHL career. It isn’t clear who is expected to start in 2013-2014. Insofar as some of last season’s struggles came from bad luck, I’m expecting the Flyers to be better this season than they were last year. On the other hand, their weak possession game remains a concern, and their goaltending could be even worse. Because of these things, the Flyers will be OUT.
On one hand, times are good in Pittsbugh. Their top lines are centered by arguably the two best players in the world, and their blueline is anchored by an elite puck-mover and minutes-eater in Norris finalist Kris Letang. Scoring machine James Neal is another nice piece to have, as is superb defenseman Paul Martin (it speaks volumes of Martin that he had such a strong season, given that he spent it dragging Brooks Orpik’s reanimated corpse around the ice). Goaltending may sometimes be an issue, but they have the added luxury of an elite-caliber backup in Tomas Vokoun.
On the other hand, the salary cap has taken a toll on Pittsburgh’s depth over the past year or so. For most of Dan Bylsma’s tenure as head coach, the Penguins’ strong possession game was driven by the excellent third line of Jordan Staal, Tyler Kennedy, and Matt Cooke, who consistently drove tough assignments away from their goal. All three players are now gone, and it’s not clear how the Pens will defend opposing scorers this season; Brandon Sutter, brought in as an ostensible replacement for Staal, was routinely slaughtered in the sorts of tough matchups that Staal owned. These depth issues have been exacerbated by some puzzling contract decisions. Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis are admittedly coming off strong seasons, but committing $7.5M in cap space to two mid-30s wingers is the sort of decision that can haunt a team. Similarly, plodding defenseman Rob Scuderi was brought back on a four-year deal that will actually see him paid more than Letang this season – Scuderi will be 35 by the Olympic break – and there are rumors that Orpik will receive an extension soon. This is problematic since (a) Scuderi and Orpik are no longer mobile enough to be net possession players, and (b) veterans like Scuderi, Orpik, and Deryk Engelland are preventing Pittsburgh’s much-lauded pipeline of defense prospects from getting NHL experience.
Of course, this might all sound like nitpicking: the Penguins had the best record in the Eastern conference last year (including a March-long 15-game winning streak), and won two playoff rounds. Yet, for the first full(ish) season in Bylsma’s tenure, Pittsburgh was actually a negative possession team (Fenwick Close 49.9%), and was one of the worst penalty-killing squads in the league. The Penguins won games last year via scorching-hot shooting (scoring on almost 10% of even-strength shots), a deadly (and busy) power play, and very strong goaltending. We saw what happened when the shooting luck deserted them in their series against Boston, and more generally, it’s very hard to shoot that well over an 82-game season. To me, the Penguins seem like an excellent team that’s beginning to take steps in the wrong direction, and I would be surprised to see them match their standings performance from last season. Nevertheless, with all their top-end talent, the Penguins will still be IN.
One of the most interesting questions for the upcoming season has to be this: now that they won’t be playing a significant portion of their schedule against the likes of Winnipeg, Tampa Bay, and Florida, are the Washington Capitals still a playoff team? For most of Alex Ovechkin’s time in DC, the Caps have held steady claim to the Southeast Division title (and home ice in the first round of the playoffs). Now, the Capitals are no longer the dominant team they were from, say, 2009 through 2011, and the competition in this division is stiffer. In 2013, Washington overcame a terrible start, and thanks to some blazing-hot shooting and the league’s best power play, roared back into their usual spot as the East’s 3rd seed. So what should we expect this year?
Last season’s Caps illustrated the adage that it’s better to be lucky than good: their weak division and hot shooting covered over the fact that they didn’t play particularly good hockey. Washington was a lousy possession team that got outshot 34 times in the regular season, and absent an unsustainably high shooting percentage to finish the year, probably would have finished well out of the playoff picture. On the bright side, switching out Mike Ribiero for Mikhail Grabovski on their second line should mitigate their possession struggles to some extent. And the Caps may have a star in the making in young goaltender Braden Holtby, which helps as well. Still, it’s not clear that Adam Oates understands how to implement a possession-oriented system, or that they have the personnel in their bottom six or on defense to make that happen. I don’t think the Caps will be a bad team next year per se, but I think there are too many teams in the East that will be better; it’ll be close, but the Capitals will be OUT.