Over the last couple of days, I've been looking at each of the NHL's new divisions. The Metropolitan division was bunched together more tightly than the others. Each team had some holes, but each could also make an argument that they'd at least compete for the playoffs. In the Atlantic things weren't quite so even. The top four teams look to be clearly ahead of the bottom four, and the top two look like strong Stanley Cup contenders. The Central is filled mostly with bad teams, but also boasts two of the strongest clubs in the league. As we look to the Pacific division today, that last bit is relevant: five of these seven teams will likely make the post-season, with the crossover team set to play the winner of the Central.
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) Calgary Flames (14th in the Western Conference, 30th Overall) - This is not a good hockey team, but it's a hockey team doing some pretty reasonable things if the plan isn't really to compete. Making Karri Ramo your starting goaltender, for example, is a huge risk, but at 27 years old, Ramo is young enough to make it the kind of risk that might pay off for the Flames over the long term. And if he tanks, no big deal! You might say the same thing about reclamation project Joe Colbourne. Is he likely to be a difference-maker at the NHL level? Probably not. Is it worth spending a fourth-round pick to find out if your team is going to be terrible anyway? It sure is! The same thing applies to new defenseman Kris Russell who struggled to find ice time during his last two years in St. Louis. I can't imagine that being a problem for him in Calgary. Yes, the veterans on this team exist to help Mikael Backlund, Sven Baertschi, and Sean Monahan develop into the best possible NHL players. At this time next year, we'll probably have a name or two to add to that list. Goal Differential Prediction: -45 (Change from 2013: +10)
(6) Edmonton Oilers (12th in the Western Conference, 28th Overall) - At least I've got them above the Flames. I'm sorry. I wish I thought that the coaching change would make a bigger difference since that seems to be the main thing the Oilers are betting on for improvement. The Oilers made a lot of changes, but they didn't make very many significant changes at the top of a roster that finished last season with a "Fenwick Close" percentage of just 44.5%. Seven of the top nine forwards return from last year, and only one of those replacements can really be considered an upgrade (Perron > Paajarvi, Gordon = Horcoff). On defense, either the team's new captain or Anton Belov will probably be playing top four minutes, but the other three spots belong to incumbents. Lots and lots of change around the margins to legitimately improve defensive depth, and lots of change to the depth forwards too, but they may not actually be any better. Last year's team was able to compensate for their poor play at evens with a sparkling goal differential on special teams, but it's hard for me to believe that will continue. The Oilers have been in the bottom third of the league in five-on-four shot differential in each of the last three seasons; they had the fourth-best four-on-five (PK) save percentage last season at 89.4%; and they jettisoned most of last year's penalty killing crew without bringing in many players who have previously been relied upon to kill penalties at the NHL level. There are signs here that the Oilers are in some trouble even without the injuries at center. Throw those in along with a long road trip to start the year, and things could be ugly early. Should the Oilers finish this far down the table in 2012-13, it will be very interesting to listen to the rumblings in the fan base. Goal Differential Prediction: -34 (Change from 2013: -19)
(5) Vancouver Canucks (8th in the Western Conference, 16th Overall) - So, the old Northwest division, yeah, it wasn't very good. The Canucks were a legitimate juggernaut for a few years, but last season, they mostly just beat up on a bad division. They were 11-6-1 with a +10 goal differential against the Northwest, and 15-9-6 with a -4 goal differential against everybody else (I didn't adjust the GD numbers to make them per 82 games here). This year, their division is much tougher. Meanwhile, Daniel and Henrik Sedin are getting older and need new contracts. They may end up being Canucks for life, or they might be traded to help the Canucks build a younger core. Vancouver's poor drafting over the years has resulted in some gaps in the bottom half of the depth chart, especially at center where Brad Richardson, Jordan Schroeder, or Zac Dalpe is going to be the club's third-line center with everyone healthy. This seems like a pretty big risk to me, very reminiscent of the year that Steve Tambellini decided that Colin Fraser was a good bet to play on Edmonton's third line. Vancouver's not going to fall off a cliff here, but I think there will be some very serious soul-searching about how best to move forward with this team after the 2013-14 season is done. Goal Differential Prediction: +1 (Change from 2013: -9)
(4) Phoenix Coyotes (7th in the Western Conference, 15th Overall) - The Coyotes have been about average at even strength since Dave Tippett got into town. When Tippett arrived in 2009-10, their "Fenwick Close" percentage jumped to 51.0%, and they've put up years of 50.1%, 49.2%, and 50.2% since. That's a very consistent track record, and I expect that's about where they'll end up again this season. The team's big off-season acquisition, Mike Ribeiro, doesn't really seem like a good fit for Tippett's preferences, but I'm sure they'll be able to find a role for him, probably playing on the power play and getting some cherry offensive minutes at even strength while Antoine Vermette and Martin Hanzal take the tougher duties. In goal, I don't think the big money bet on Mike Smith is good value (especially for a team that doesn't spend to the cap), but he and Thomas Greiss are likely average or a touch better for this season. This is not a particularly exciting team preview. Basically, the Coyotes are likely to be what they've been over the last several seasons, which is likely good enough for a low playoff seed. Goal Differential Prediction: +2 (Change from 2013: +12)
(3) Anaheim Ducks (5th in the Western Conference, 12th Overall) - This is a team that gets by on goaltending and a strong power play. The elements that made them successful in those areas are all still present. Jonas Hiller and VIktor Fasth are both returning, which gives the Ducks a better chance than anyone at above-average goaltending. As for the power play, of the eight players who saw at least eighty power play minutes a year ago, seven will be back for another turn, and the core power play unit of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne, and Cam Fowler are back all returning for a fourth consecutive year. That core group has helped Anaheim to finish among the league leaders in shot differential on the power play in each of those four seasons, and it seems likely that we'll see them do it again. Now, the Ducks looked better than they really were at even strength last season thanks to a five-on-five shooting percentage of 9.4%. The reality is that they haven't been strong enough in other areas to really compete for the Stanley Cup over the last few years, and that remains true this season--sending Bobby Ryan away and replacing him with Dustin Penner isn't solving that--but a flawed team with some clearly identifiable strengths should be enough to make the playoffs. Goal Differential Prediction: +8 (Change from 2013: -30)
(2) Los Angeles Kings (4th in the Western Conference, 6th Overall) - The L.A. Kings are an excellent team. They led the league in 2013 with a "Fenwick Close" percentage of 57.4%, their third consecutive year above 50%, and the best number any team has put up in that category since the 2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks. The team lost a couple of solid contributors when Rob Scuderi and Dustin Penner left via free agency, but the main drivers are all still around. Last year's team was hurt by poor goaltending during the regular season, so the Kings are surely hoping that Jonathan Quick's recovery in the playoffs is a sign of things to come. If Quick struggles, Ben Scrivens, unproven at the NHL level, seems like an odd choice for a back-up goaltender, but I guess you take what you can get if your budget only allows paying the league minimum. From my perspective, netminding is the only real concern, and even there, I think Quick is a pretty good bet to give the Kings average or better goaltending. Goal Differential Prediction: +28 (Change from 2013: +2)
(1) San Jose Sharks (3rd in the Western Conference, 5th Overall) - The general manager of the San Jose Sharks, Doug Wilson, is in a very interesting position. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dan Boyle are all in need of new contracts after this season. The youngest of those players, Marleau, will be 35 years old when next season starts. The team is good enough to compete for the Stanley Cup this season, but with the core aging and a need for more young talent in the organization, there may well be a temptation to move these players along. I don't think that will happen, but it is a very tough spot to be in, and if the Sharks struggle early on, they GM might not give them the needed time to recover. That said, I don't think they'll struggle. San Jose has been one of the best EV teams in the league over the last few seasons and one of the best PP teams in the league too. They are the only team in the league to finish in the top 10 for both power play shot differential and "Fenwick Close" percentage in each of the last three seasons, and most of the key components in that run are back for another year. Their excellent EV play was hidden somewhat in 2013 because of a 6.6% five-on-five shooting percentage, and if that normalizes in 2013-14, their old core and younger stars should again make them one of the very best teams in the Western Conference. Goal Differential Prediction: +29 (Change from 2013: +15)