In yesterday's division previews, I took a somewhat detailed look at the Metropolitan and Atlantic divisions. Those of you who were curious may have decided to add up my goal differential calculations and discovered that the Metropolitan as a whole had a goal differential of +8, while the Atlantic had a goal differential of +20. If that comes to pass it will represent a massive shift in power from the Western Conference to the Eastern Conference, but with Detroit swapping to the East, such a move does seem possible. This morning, we'll find a lot of that "missing" goal differential in Detroit's old stomping grounds, the Central division.
The statistical information used below generally comes from Behind the Net. Most of it is pretty straightforward, but one that I'll allude to with some frequency is "Fenwick Close" percentage, a term that refers to the percentage of shots and missed shots for relative to all shots and missed shots taken by both teams while the game is played five-on-five and the score is tied or within two in the first or second period. If I mention something else below that's unclear, please feel free to ask about it in the comments!
#7 - Minnesota Wild (13th in the Western Conference, 29th Overall) - The Wild were one of the big stories during the summer of 2012, signing both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to mammoth contracts, hoping that the two star players might bring them back to respectability. Their efforts paid off in the form of a playoff berth, their first in five seasons. Unfortunately, I don't think that playoff berth is a sign of things to come, at least not immediately. The Wild improved their "Fenwick Close" percentage substantially last season, moving up from 44.9% in 2011-12 to 48.7% last season. One thing you'll notice, however, is that 48.7% still isn't very good, and those big contracts the Wild gave out in 2012 meant that the team had to jettison a significant amount of quality depth this summer. Devin Setoguchi, Matt Cullen, Cal Clutterbuck, and Pierre-Marc Bouchard are all on to new cities; Matt Cooke, and a bunch of young unproven talent has arrived to take those minutes. Now, the combined points per game for the four outgoing forwards over the last three seasons is 0.50 and all four of them played at least 13.5 minutes per game for the Wild last year. I've been following the Oilers for a while now, and it's been my experience that replacing quality NHL players with rookies and plugs doesn't generally end all that well. Goal Differential Prediction: -36 (Change from 2013: -27)
#6 - Winnipeg Jets (11th in the Western Conference, 25th Overall) - The Jets almost made the playoffs last year, but they did that with a goal differential of -27, which isn't very good at all. And even though the Jets are once again in the league's worst division, the new Central is a lot better than the old Southeast, which had a combined goal differential of -90 in its last-ever season. Things are going to be tougher unless the Jets have sorted out their problem(s)... which they haven't. Last season's big minus was mostly the result of poor goaltending. Over the last four seasons, just 16 goaltenders have made at least 200 starts. One of those goalies is Ondrej Pavelec, who currently sits in 15th with an even strength save percentage of .917, one point better than Marc-Andre Fleury's .916. This, friends, is a problem, and with Pavelec just entering the second year of his five-year contract, it's not a problem that's going away anytime soon. The Jets are a young team, and are likely going to be improving over the next several seasons, but this goaltending problem is likely going to haunt them. This season, I've got the Jets coming close to breaking even in the possession metrics at even strength, but getting clobbered in goal differential because of the problems between the pipes. Goal Differential Prediction: -25 (Change from 2013: +2)
#5 - Colorado Avalanche (10th in the Western Conference, 24th Overall) - Colorado finished last season with a brutal -62 goal differential, but I don't think they'll be that bad in 2013-14. Some of Colorado's struggles came about because of bad luck: the club saw key players like Gabriel Landeskog, Erik Johnson, Ryan O`Reilly and Milan Hejduk miss a quarter of the season or more because of injury or holdout; they finished the season with a five-on-five PDO of just 98.2 (6.6% shooting percentage and 90.9% save percentage); and they were forced to deal with the internal conflict that generally comes with a change in management structure. None of those things are particularly likely to be repeated. That the Avalanche will add Alex Tanguay and Nathan MacKinnon to their forward ranks without having any substantive losses (I'm not a big believer in David Jones) should also help the team improve further. The Avalanche haven't had a positive "Fenwick Close" season in what seems like forever, and this prediction reflects a "show me and I'll believe" attitude, but if the Avalanche get quality goaltending from Semyon Varlamov, I could see this team beating my prediction by a fair margin, and fighting for a playoff spot. Goal Differential Prediction: -24 (Change from 2013: +38)
#4 - Nashville Predators (9th in the Western Conference, 21st Overall) - The bad just keeps on coming, and as you can see by Nashville's ranking in the Conference and the league overall, I don't think the playoff race is going to be particularly close in the Western Conference. Nashville is the best of the rest, and they're not very good. At all. Yes, they made the playoffs in 2011-12, but that was with smoke and mirrors--their "Fenwick Close" percentage was 46.1% that season--and the club's luck ran out when they delivered a similar performance (45.9%) in 2013. The club added Matt Cullen and Viktor Stalberg over the summer as well as raw rookie Seth Jones (who probably didn't play tough minutes in the WHL and saw his performance dip substantially when he was away from his usual partner). It's enough to improve, but I don't think it's enough to get the Predators into serious contention in the playoff race unless they can find where they put that rabbit's foot. Goal Differential Prediction: -19 (Change from 2013: +29)
#3 - Dallas Stars (6th in the Western Conference, 13th Overall) - I really like what the Stars have done this off-season. They began the summer with a couple of very identifiable areas of need, namely quality at center and depth on defense. They addressed those problems by acquiring Tyler Seguin, Shawn Horcoff, and Rich Peverley to address their needs up the middle and Sergei Gonchar to help on the blueline while retaining all four of their top four defensemen from last season. The acquisition of Seguin and Peverley came with a steep price tag (Loui Eriksson is an excellent player), but it's not often that a player of Seguin's ability is available, and six years of Tyler Seguin is very likely going to provide better value than three years of Eriksson. The Stars also made the smart play at the draft selecting (and then signing) Valeri Nichushkin when he fell into their lap. Dallas now has an impressive "Under-25" group, which includes Seguin, Nichushkin, Jamie Benn and Brenden Dillon, as well as a solid group of veteran players who can provide the necessary support for that strong young core. It's been a very impressive beginning for new general manager, Jim Nill, and I think it's enough to get his team to the playoffs. Goal Differential Prediction: +3 (Change from 2013: +25)
#2 - St. Louis Blues (2nd in the Western Conference, 2nd Overall) - The division as a whole might be weak, but the best two teams may be the two best teams in the entire league. The Blues don't have any superstar talent among their group of forwards, but what they do have is outstanding depth and the best defense one through six in the entire league. Last year, that combination was enough to be one of the better teams at even strength, posting a "Fenwick Close" percentage of 53.9%. With the Central division becoming much weaker during the off-season, I fully expect St. Louis to post a third consecutive season of 53% or better. I have them just a touch behind Chicago because of the uncertainty in goal (stop playing Brian Elliott!), but that uncertainty isn't enough to push them any farther. Goal Differential Prediction: +40 (Change from 2013: +16)
#1 - Chicago Blackhawks (1st in the Western Conference, 1st Overall) - The defending Stanley Cup champions are again on top of the heap, but I do have them coming back to the pack at least a little. The Hawks had a goal differential of +91 a year ago, and that's simply not a likely outcome for any team to achieve this coming season. That's not to say that Chicago was actually a bad team that got lucky. No, unfortunately for their opponents, they were a very good team that also got lucky. A "Fenwick Close" percentage of 55.8% combined with a PDO of 102.1 is going to lead to a lot of wins, and that's exactly what Chicago experienced. It also couldn't have hurt that their goaltenders put together the third-best four-on-five save percentage in the league (89.8%). Some of those percentages are going to come back to earth, and the Blackhawks likely won't be able to repeat the massive goal differential of one season ago. But when you're coming down from such a height, a little drop can still leave you higher than everybody else. Goal Differential Prediction: +43 (Change from 2013: -48)