As you've probably guessed, this is going to be the first in a series of four posts previewing each of the NHL's new divisions. I've got the two Eastern Conference divisions today, and will move to the Western Conference tomorrow. It's a fun exercise, and one that I'll revisit at the end of the regular season to see where I've done well, which teams surprised me, and look at why my prediction may have been off in those instances.
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!
#8 - Carolina Hurricanes (14th in the Eastern Conference, 23rd Overall) - Not that it's going to be any solace to fans of the Hurricanes, but this is by far the best last-place team in the NHL. The Hurricanes made a couple of strong additions to their defense this off-season, acquiring Andrej Sekera at the draft, and Ron Hainsey late in free agency. Unfortunately, the Hainsey signing only happened because the club received word that their best defenseman, Joni Pitkanen, would miss the entire season. When Pitkanen was in the lineup last season, the Hurricanes used him extensively in all three phases of the game, so he's not exactly an easy player to replace. Last season's big additions, Jordan Staal and Alex Semin, helped the Hurricanes move to the positive side of the "Fenwick Close" percentage for the first time in three seasons, but with the club playing in a much more difficult division and with a more balanced schedule, I think there's a good chance that they'll take a step back in that area. Believe it or not, despite the last-place finish, I have the Hurricanes improving their goal differential substantially from last season, mostly based on the team getting better goaltending. Goal Differential Prediction: -23 (Change from 2013: +32)
#7 - Columbus Blue Jackets (13th in the Eastern Conference, 22nd Overall) - The Blue Jackets had a very exciting run at the playoffs last season, but ended up missing finishing ninth on account of having fewer regulation and overtime wins than the Minnesota Wild. It's decidedly unfortunate that the club didn't make it last season because their success isn't likely to carry over into 2013-14. At 45.4%, the Jackets had one of the worst "Fenwick Close" percentages in the NHL, and were only able to win as often as they did because of Sergei Bobrovsky's Vezina-winning goaltending. Bobrovsky's longer term track record isn't that good, and the club's backup, Curtis McElhinney, might be the worst in the league. The Jackets lost Vinny Prospal to... not wanting him anymore... and Nathan Horton, the player they acquired to replace him, will begin the season on injured reserve. Basically, if I'm erring here, I expect that it's by having the Jackets too high, and that's not good news for a team I've got finishing on the wrong side of the playoff cut-line. Goal Differential Prediction: -20 (Change from 2013: -22)
#6 - New York Islanders (10th in the Eastern Conference, 18th Overall) - The Islanders took a big step forward in their ability to carry the play last season, and I'm projecting them to continue that trend this year. John Tavares is fantastic, and the team has provided him with a tremendous supporting cast up front, whether by retaining an established player like Frans Nielsen at a bargain price, or adding a new player like Pierre-Marc Bouchard on low-risk bet with solid upside. So what's the problem? Goaltending. Garth Snow has decided that the tandem of Evgeni Nabokov and (probably) Kevin Poulin is sufficient, but in actual fact, it's probably one of the worst in the league. The team is good, but it's not among the league's elite, and if you're getting bottom-five goaltending, you need to be elite in other areas just to make the playoffs. If the Islanders solve their goaltending problem either by bringing in someone more capable or by getting an unexpected but fantastic performance from one of the incumbents, they're a threat to win the division. Goal Differential Prediction: -6 (Change from 2013: -6)
#5 - Washington Capitals (9th in the Eastern Conference, 17th Overall) - The Capitals have been able to float along in the Southeast division for years. That changes this season, and I think it ends up being one of the main reasons that Washington misses the playoffs. The Capitals have been declining for a while now, and earned a "Fenwick Close" score of just 47.7% last season, their second consecutive year below the break-even mark. The addition of Mikhail Grabovski should help with that, especially since he'll be replacing Mike Ribeiro (despite the strong boxcars, Ribeiro was an awful possession player last season). Even still, that improvement will probably be more than off-set by a regression in their five-on-four shooting percentage--at 20.6%, it was both the best in the league last season, and the best the league has seen since Behind the Net started measuring it--and Braden Holtby taking a step back from last year's .931 even strength save percentage. I like Holtby just fine, but of the 16 goaltenders with at least 200 starts over the last four years, only Henrik Lundqvist has been able to sustain a .930 save percentage or better; even if Holtby's really good, we're probably going to see a pullback. Goal Differential Prediction: -5 (Change from 2013: -37)
#4 - Philadelphia Flyers (8th in the Eastern Conference, 14th Overall) - Didn't I just write about this team? Excellent forwards (boosted by the addition of Vincent Lecavalier), reasonable defense (boosted by the addition of Mark Streit), and just plain terrible bets in goal. Ray Emery isn't a better bet than Nabokov--Emery's even strength save percentage over the last four seasons is .917, which is actually slightly worse than Nabokov's over the same period--and Steve Mason isn't a better bet than pretty much anybody. I've got the Flyers slightly ahead of the Islanders because I think they're deeper at both forward and defense, but still have them fighting for their playoff lives because of the lack of talent between the pipes. As with the Islanders, average play in net gets this team to the playoffs for sure and an excellent goaltender could push them to the top of the division. Goal Differential Prediction: +3 (Change from 2013: +17)
#3 - New Jersey Devils (7th in the Eastern Conference, 11th Overall) - If you prorate New Jersey's goal differenial over 82 games, they were -29 last season, and the biggest change the team made was releasing their best player, Ilya Kovalchuk, so that he could play in Russia. So why on earth do I have them improving so much? It starts with the other major personnel change, namely the acquisition of Cory Schneider. If the Devils play him as the starter, he'll be a big improvement on Martin Brodeur, and Brodeur will, in turn, be a big improvement on Johan Hedberg. In other words, the goaltending should be a lot better. The Devils also struggled with really bad luck last season, putting together a team shooting percentage of just 6.7% during five-on-five play. Even with Kovalchuk's departure, that number is very likely to improve substantially. And despite the team's huge ups and downs in the standings, the Devils have been consistently good at generating positive Fenwick events, one of just eight clubs to earn a "Fenwick Close" percentage above 50% in each of the last three seasons. The other teams in that category are Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Jose, St. Louis, and Vancouver. That's pretty good company. Goal Differential Prediction: +14 (Change from 2013: +43)
#2 - New York Rangers (5th in the Eastern Conference, 9th Overall) - The Rangers begin the year in a tough spot with both Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin scheduled to be out for the first month or two of the season. That said, the Rangers are in position to cope with those players being out for a short period of time and should be a tremendous team at even strength when they get back. I mentioned earlier that Henrik Lundqvist has been the best goalie in the league with at least 200 starts over the last four seasons, and I can't find any reason for him to play at less than an elite level this season. The Rangers have also replaced John Tortorella with Alain Vigneault, and I think that's probably an upgrade. I had the opportunity to see the Canucks a lot during Vigneault's tenure there, and I think he did an excellent job of maximizing the value of his roster, something I expect him to do again in New York. Goal Differential Prediction: +20 (Change from 2013: -11)
#1 - Pittsburgh Penguins (3rd in the Eastern Conference, 7th Overall) - In terms of goal differential, I've got the Penguins taking a large step back, but I still think this team is good enough to win a very competitive division. When Evgeni Malkin is only your second best player, that really can't be too surprising, so I guess it probably makes more sense to talk about what I think is missing. Pittsburgh's "Fenwick Close" percentage fell just below 49.9% last season, and their forward depth is really hurting. The departure of players like Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke shouldn't hurt too much, but it will if they're replaced with Tanner Glass or raw rookies. Add to that uncertainty Tomas Vokoun's injury, and I just don't think the Penguins will end up being one of this year's most dominant teams, even if the league's most dominant player can stay healthy for the whole year. Goal Differential Prediction: +25 (Change from 2013: -54)