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.
There’s really no need to overthink this one. The Blackhawks won last year’s Stanley Cup and President’s Trophy. They were also a superlative puck-possession team (Fenwick Close 55.8%), and allowed the fewest goals in the NHL. Apart from a few depth players (e.g., Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik), the Hawks will return the same lineup to the ice this season. Chicago will be IN.
The rebuild is on in Denver, and last year’s Avs finished a mile out of playoff contention to no one’s serious surprise. On one hand, the future looks pretty bright, with talented youngsters Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, and Nathan McKinnon in the fold for a while (and Ryan O’Reilly hopefully signing a long-term contract soon). This season, however, the big picture beyond these players and underrated contributors like P.A. Parenteau and Jan Hejda is not promising. Colorado was an awful possession team last season (Fenwick Close 46.7%), and surrendered over 31 shots a game on average. Which is kind of a problem when your goaltending features the unspectacular tandem of J.S. Giguere and Semyon Varlamov. Things are definitely heading in the right direction for this team, but the Avalanche will be OUT.
It’s never an easy thing to define expectations for a team in Dallas’s position. On one hand, they sold off their long-time captain and the team’s leading scorer at last year’s trade deadline, and concluded an unsuccessful season by firing coach Glen Gulutzan and GM Joe Nieuwendyk. They were also a lousy possession team, which generally doesn’t bode well for subsequent seasons. However . . .
New GM Jim Nill, a veteran of the Red Wings organization, has wasted no time in reshaping the Stars. I’ll admit to being skeptical of the decision to give $10M to Sergei Gonchar; though he’s still a capable power-play contributor and puck-mover, Gonchar is a shadow of his former self at this point, and played fairly soft minutes for a short-handed D corps in Ottawa last season. On the other hand, Nill did well to pry two excellent players away from Boston in Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley; Peverley did well in a defensive role for the Bruins, and Seguin (assuming his rumored personal troubles are just a case of the Boston sports media being themselves) is potentially a star. Also coming aboard is long-time Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff. The biggest question surrounding the Stars is what sort of system Ruff will implement in Dallas. And here lies perhaps the best reason for optimism: when Ruff has had reasonably talented rosters, his Buffalo teams have played a better possession game than the Stars played last year. And he should have reasonable talent to work with this season. In addition to the names above, the Stars will have Jamie Benn and ex-Oiler Shawn Horcoff up front, and a blueline featuring gifted puck-mover Alex Goligoski and solid shutdown contributors in Stephane Robidas and Brenden Dillon. And their goaltending tandem of Kari Lehtonen and Dan Ellis is actually pretty good.
Still, I have a hard time talking myself into the playoff chances of a team that got outshot by an average of nearly 5 per game, and which needed to shoot over 9% to avoid being one of the league’s worst teams. Particularly in a weaker division, Dallas may surprise people this year, but since I’m predicting, I will say that they’re OUT.
At a glance, the Wild are a tough team to figure out. On one hand, the top-end talent on their roster is very top-end: in Ryan Suter they have arguably the best defenseman in the NHL, and Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, and ex-Buffalo captain Jason Pominville are also excellent players. (Of course, they’re also in the unfortunate position of paying Dany Heatley $5M this year.) On the other hand, they didn’t have results consistent with that talent last season: despite playing in the Western Conference’s weakest division in 2013, the Wild struggled to make the postseason, and bowed out quickly in the first round at the hands of the Blackhawks.
The explanation for all this is a bit different from the one often given for their second-half collapse in 2012: the Wild aren’t a strong possession team – in particular, they struggle to generate shots – but in 2013 they struggled with shooting luck as well. Though it’s hard to read much into subsets of the shortened season, the Wild’s possession game appeared to improve as the campaign went along (well, before they played five games against Chicago, anyway). Their goaltending didn’t help them much last season, and frankly it’s a major concern moving forward: Josh Harding’s future in hockey is uncertain, for obvious reasons, and Niklas Backstrom’s durability is questionable.
I have to be honest: I was not looking forward to writing this preview, for the simple reason that the Central looks mediocre-to-awful beyond its top two teams. But the new playoff format requires at least three teams from each division to make the postseason, so I need to talk myself into one of the other five teams. Possibly for that reason alone, I’m going to say that Minnesota will be IN.
Two things have tended to characterize Nashville hockey in recent seasons: superb goaltending from Pekka Rinne, and being outshot a lot. Last year, the Predators got to test this formula without Ryan Suter on their blueline, and the result was one of the worst records in the NHL. And this year doesn’t promise to be much different. Having Rinne on your team is nice, and having Shea Weber on your team is nice as well; and someday soon, the Predators might have in Filip Forsberg and Seth Jones the makings of a strong young core. But 2013-2014 will not be that year. The Preds will be OUT.
St. Louis Blues
Moving along, we come to the Central’s other outstanding team. The Blues have been an elite possession team for the past two seasons, and there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue. While St. Louis lacks game-breaking talent up front, they may have the deepest group of defensemen in the NHL, with a top six that includes Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester, Barret Jackman, and Jordan Leopold. They also have a good starting goaltender in Jaroslav Halak, and both of their goalies are playing for new contracts. As with Chicago, there’s no reason to overthink this one: St. Louis will be IN.
One of the unlikely winners of the past offseason has to be the Jets, who leave a toughened Eastern Conference for the relatively friendly confines of this division. Last year, Winnipeg stayed within striking distance of the playoffs before falling just short in the season’s last days. This year, they will return essentially the same lineup; notable adds include Chicago’s Michael Frolik and the talented-but-disappointing Devin Setoguchi. Unfortunately, their chances of a playoff spot in an 82-game season look to be a bit longer. In Ondrej Pavelec and Al Montoya, the Jets have possibly the league’s worst goaltending tandem, and their poor possession game makes weak goaltending a recipe for disaster. The Jets, once again, will be OUT.