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Stanley Cup Contenders: Thoughts After a Quarter-Season

 

We’re about a quarter of the way through the 2013-14 season, with each team having played around 20 games.

These are the 5 teams that I see as the most likely to win it all this year.

They are not listed in any particular order.

After I list the 5 contenders, I explain why I left certain teams off.

 

1. San Jose Sharks – Pacific Divison

Justification for being on this list: To put it bluntly, San Jose is loaded. With Brent Burns moved to forward (and dominating prior to an injury in mid/late October) and the great play of rookie Tomas Hertl, the Sharks have among the best combinations of top-end talent and depth at forward in the NHL. Thornton, Marleau, Couture, Pavelski, Burns, Hertl, and Havlat is an unbelievably talented group, and it shows – the Sharks are currently leading the league with 3.61 goals per game.

Their defense is less impressive but still quite good in its own right, with a still-effective Dan Boyle leading the group as a capable #1 alongside the ever-steady Marc-Edouard Vlasic. San Jose is set in net with Antti Niemi, who already has a Cup and Vezina nomination on his résumé.

The Sharks are one of the best 5-on-5 teams in the league, with a +1.4 5v5 +/- per 60 minutes. They also boast a top-10 powerplay and a capable penalty kill. San Jose is extremely well-rounded… perhaps more so than any other team on this list.

 

Why they might fail: Injuries are a major concern. Burns has been out for weeks with a nebulous something (I don’t think anyone’s really sure outside of the Sharks organization). Boyle has missed time this season as well. Havlat never seems to be healthy.

Several of the Sharks’ most important players are on the wrong side of 30, and – even if they do stay healthy – may see a statistical and on-ice decline as the season progresses.

Additionally, their chances at the Cup are decreased simply because they play in the stacked Western Conference.

 

2.  Los Angeles Kings – Pacific Division

Justification for being on this list: They aren’t a popular pick these days, with Jonathan Quick sidelined for 4-6 weeks and being 4th in the Pacific Division. But look a little deeper and you’ll see that the Pacific has three of the top-four teams in the league in terms of points (Anaheim, San Jose, and Phoenix). There’s no shame in being a few points behind those teams at this point in the season in light of how well they’ve all played.

Despite the success of so many Pacific teams, I have LA as my only other contender out of that division.

 

Jonathan Quick hasn’t played well this year, but I don’t expect that to continue once he returns from injury.

The guy is dominant every year in the playoffs. He gives LA a leg up in the goaltending battle no matter which team they’re facing. I can’t understate the importance of that. There’s a reason goalies have won 2 out of the last 3 Conn Smythes (and it should be 3 out of 3 – even Patrick Kane himself admitted that Corey Crawford deserved it last season).

Los Angeles has plenty of talent at forward with Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, and Justin Williams. They have a top-10 defenseman in Drew Doughty and one of the most underrated offensive D-men in the NHL in Slava Voynov. Willie Mitchell – who Los Angeles missed badly last year – is back in the lineup as well.

The Kings are ordinary on special teams, with a slightly above-average powerplay and a slightly below-average penalty kill.

 

I’ll be frank. There are two things that really drove me to put LA on this list (in addition to having Quick on their roster).

1. Los Angeles is second in the league in *Fenwick Close (FC) this season (see bottom of article for definition). Their record is good but not great, but such an impressive FC suggests they are better than the win and loss totals may indicate.

2. The Kings have a championship pedigree and are 6-1 in playoff series the past two postseasons. They still have essentially the same roster they had in those two years.

 

Why they might fail: Anze Kopitar seems to have forgotten how to score goals. He did have a recent three-game goalscoring streak, but sandwiched around those three games are a whole lot of 0’s in the “G” column. Kopitar is still putting up points, but LA needs a little more out of him. The Kings have talent at forward, but aren’t necessarily loaded with finishers. Carter’s the only pure scorer they’ve got.

 

Jonathan Quick might not return to form.

 

The Kings may not actually make the playoffs. They’re neck and neck with Vancouver for the Pacific’s fourth spot. With the Avalanche, Blues, and Blackhawks likely to command the Central’s top three spots, Minnesota is LA’s main competition for the fourth seed in the Central division (the NHL’s new playoff rules are a bit of a mess).

 

Whoever LA plays in the first round (Chicago? St. Louis? San Jose? Anaheim?) will be one of the best teams in the league. Everyone in the West has a tough route to the Final ahead of them, but if LA has to “cross over,” they may have the toughest. As good as the Pacific is, I think the Central has the Western Conference’s two best teams.

 

The Kings have had the easiest schedule in the NHL so far. This could be a big reason why their FC is so good (and thus, perhaps, misleading). As they start playing more games within their own division, we’ll see if the numbers stay that high.

 

3. St. Louis – Central Division

Justification for being on this list: I was actually hesitant to put the Blues on here, not because they don’t belong in the discussion but rather because they’ve flopped against LA in the playoffs for two seasons in a row. But we all need to remind ourselves not to fall victim to thought patterns like that. Hockey is a game full of variables – every bounce of the puck, every hit, every play… all have the potential to change games and series.

Anyway.

St. Louis’ perceived weakness during Ken Hitchcock’s tenure as coach is and has always been their offense.

So, naturally, they’re third in the NHL in goals per game. The Blues are also still a top-ten defensive team, letting in only 2.29 per game. They have the league’s best PP and an average PK.

 

Alex Steen is scoring at an absolutely bizarre rate, and Backes is on pace for a career season (by a mile). They do still lack top-end talent at forward (see “why they’ll fail”) despite both of those guys producing at crazy clips.

The Blues have group of defensemen that can probably only be rivaled by Chicago. Alex Pietrangelo has regained top-5 status as he has clearly rebounded from a disappointing season last year, Kevin Shattenkirk is amazing (and doesn’t get enough love for his two-way ability), Jay Bouwmeester is as high-quality a #2 as you can get, toughness and poise from Barrett Jackman, a solid and reliable third pairing with Polak and Cole… there’s not much more I have to say about this defense. It’s excellent.

Jaroslav Halak has played somewhat mediocre hockey this year, but St. Louis has been winning anyway.

The Blues are ranked third in Fenwick Close.

 

Why they might fail: They don’t have a true elite forward. Is that vague? Yes. But I’ll get to that in a second.

No, Alex Steen is not in that category. The guy is 29 years old and has played 9 seasons in the NHL prior to this one, never eclipsing 24 goals or 51 points in a full season. He hasn’t suddenly morphed into one of the best scorers in the league. His shooting percentage is unsustainably high (26.7) and screams “fluke” in light of the fact that he’s shot above ten percent in only two other seasons of his career (12.7 and 11.2). Steen is a quality top-6 forward, but not more than that.

Now. Going through past Cup winners, all of them have several “major impact” forwards. To this point, the Blues have not proven to have even one.

2012-13 Chicago: Toews, Kane, Hossa

2011-12 Los Angeles: Kopitar, Richards, Carter

2010-11 Boston: Bergeron, Krejci

2009-10 Chicago: Toews, Kane, Hossa

2008-09 Pittsburgh: Crosby, Malkin

2007-08 Detroit: Datsyuk, Zetterberg

 

Correlation is not causation, sure, but there is a conspicuous relationship here. Having a gamebreaking forward (or two, or three) is clearly important.

The Blues have every other ingredient. If they fail, it will be because of this.

Or, of course, because the other teams in the powerful West are simply better. That’s why they play the games.

 

4. Chicago Blackhawks – Central Division

Justification for being on this list: Chicago looks good everywhere. They have dynamic forward talent in Toews, Kane, and Hossa, and very good offensive support from Sharp, Saad, Bickell, Shaw, and an emerging Brandon Pirri. Acquiring Kris Versteeg will further aid that strong offensive depth. The defensive core is – as mentioned – paralleled only by St. Louis’. Duncan Keith is one of the best at his position in the league and has been the preeminent playoff defenseman in the NHL since Chicago first became a high echelon team in 2008-09. Brent Seabrook – like Bouwmeester – is as good a #2 as you will see on any team. Niklas Hjalmarsson has quietly become just as good as Seabrook and holds down the second pairing with an effective albeit somewhat erratic Johnny Oduya. Nick Leddy and Michal Roszival constitute one of the finest third pairings in the league.

Corey Crawford will be in consideration for Team Canada in the Sochi Olympics this February, and is a strong, consistent goaltender.

Chicago’s powerplay has been very good, but its PK is the worst in the NHL and doesn’t appear to be getting any better.

The Hawks are first in Fenwick Close this season.

 

Why they might fail: Fatigue and injuries seem to be the most likely potential reasons. They also have had trouble with St. Louis this season (although I do think they would beat the Blues in a playoff series, that could easily just be the Chicago fan in me talking), and will likely have to go through them to make it to the Cup Final. Marian Hossa has said that he isn’t quite sure how his back will hold up over the course of an entire season. An injury to their starting goalie spells huge trouble for Chicago. The drop-off from Crawford to Khabibulin is precipitous.

The terrible penalty kill could quite conceivably be a major barrier to success come playoff time.

The team has been having issues with defensive coverage so far this season as well.

As with every other Western Conference team on this list, Chicago’s chances are hurt by almost surely having to go through numerous other great teams in the first three rounds of the playoffs.

 

5. Boston Bruins – Atlantic Division

Justification for being on this list: Generally, I consider the definition of “Cup contender” to be “any team that I believe has the potential to make it to the Cup Final.”

There is a reason Boston is the only Eastern team I’ve included on this list. Starts with an E, ends with an E, rhymes with “shmeestern shmonference.”

I view the Bruins as the best team in the East (again). I don’t think there’s anyone in that conference that can genuinely challenge them in the first three rounds of the playoffs, so by default they make it onto this list.

 

Boston has an exceptional group of forwards headlined by Bergeron, Krejci, Eriksson, Lucic, Iginla, and Marchand. Rask is a top-10 goaltender and some (although not myself) would put him in the top 5. They have Zdeno Chara, and he makes the defense formidable essentially on his own. Doesn’t hurt that he has a solid #2 in Dennis Seidenberg and more-than-capable guys like Johnny Boychuk, Dougie Hamilton, and Torey Krug behind him..

The Bruins allow almost 0.3 less goals against per game than any other team in the NHL, continuing their trend from recent years of teamwide defensive excellence. They have an average PP and great PK.

Similar to Los Angeles and Chicago, this is a team with plenty of winning experience. And like Los Angeles with Quick, they effectively have a leg up on every other team in the NHL by virtue of having the single most physically dominant player in the NHL (Chara). They may have fallen to Chicago in the Final last season, but it is impossible to forget how Chara, Bergeron, and the Bruins completely neutralized Crosby and Malkin in the Eastern Conference Finals last season.

 

Make no mistake – for all my times implying and/or repeating that the East is terrible, this is one team that can beat anyone in the West.

 

Why they might fail: Fatigue from a deep run last year and a short summer. Injuries. A disappointing powerplay. Running into a team that has the personnel to consistently attack Chara with speed as Chicago did last spring. Maybe Pittsburgh turns things around from their season so far (it’s been a whole lot of “meh”) and shows us that last year’s playoffs were a fluke? I doubt it, but it’s possible.

 

Teams That I Left Off, and Why

When you only have five spots, someone’s got to sit on the bench. There are a lot more than 5 good teams in the NHL. I just narrowed it down to the 5 best as I see it.

 

Anaheim Ducks: This one was really tough. I had to choose 2 teams out of LA, San Jose, and Anaheim. I went with the first two, mostly choosing based on gut feeling and intuition. The Ducks have been great so far this year, but there are only five spots. I have Anaheim as the clear #6 at the moment.

 

Colorado Avalanche: Colorado is a much-improved team from last season, there’s no doubt about that. But there is also little doubting the fact that they have been incredibly fortunate so far this year, and very likely aren’t as good as their record suggests. The Avalanche is getting historically good (read: unsustainable) goaltending. They’re 18th in FC. Colorado’s defensive core is decidedly average, which further contrasts their win total. Their defensive and goaltending numbers have already begun to fall back down to earth in recent games. I see that trend continuing.

 

Detroit Red Wings: Before the season, I would have put them in the top 5 at the expense of San Jose. But the Wings have disappointed me so far this year. Stephen Weiss has been a bust of a signing so far, and they actually have a negative goal differential (another good indicator of playoff success, albeit after 82 games rather than ~20). The Wings have to show me a good deal more to get into the “true contenders” group.

 

Minnesota Wild: In the same division as St. Louis and Chicago, two considerably better teams. Not going to happen.

 

Phoenix Coyotes: Phoenix is incredibly goaltender-dependent. They have a good one in Mike Smith, but routinely give up high-quality scoring chances and are a bad possession team (#20 in FC). They would have to face LA, Anaheim, San Jose, St. Louis, or Chicago in the first round (barring a crazy change in the standings between now and season’s end), and I just can’t see them topping any of those five in a 7-game series.

 

Pittsburgh Penguins: They boast a very unimpressive record despite playing in the worst division in hockey and having had the fifth-easiest schedule in the league to date. Like Kopitar in Los Angeles, Evgeni Malkin needs to find his goalscoring touch. The Penguins have had some injury troubles, to be fair. They’ve only had Kris Letang for nine games, and James Neal for only three. Both guys are back in the lineup now. If the Penguins pick their play up (significantly), I’d consider putting them into the top 5. Until then, they don’t belong.

 

Tampa Bay Lightning: Few reasons. First one is that I don’t think they can beat Boston, a team the Lightning would all-but-assuredly face in the first or second round of the playoffs. Tampa is 0-3 (all regulation losses) against the Bruins this season and has been outscored 11-1 in those three games. The other reason I have in mind involves – inevitably – Steven Stamkos. Too many questions surround #91 for my liking. For one, we can’t be entirely sure he’ll actually return this season. And for another, how good will he really be when he comes back? I don’t doubt that he’ll eventually return to being a 60-goal offensive phenom, but there’s no telling how long that might take.

 

Toronto Maple Leafs: Simple. They’re 29th in Fenwick Close. Some people don’t believe in advanced statistics, but I do, and that’s way too big of a red flag to ignore.

 

Vancouver Canucks: Vancouver, like Detroit, has a negative goal differential. The Canucks also play in a division with three (arguably four) teams that are deeper, more balanced, and flat-out better than they are. The Sedins and Kesler are great players, but I just don’t see a quality supporting cast or particularly good defensive core here. Vancouver’s a playoff-caliber team, but they don’t belong in the top 5. 

 

Footnotes

*Fenwick Close: Fenwick is a statistic comparing all shots that a team directs toward the opposition’s net versus all shots that opposing teams direct toward the team’s net. Blocked shots are excluded.

Fenwick Close (as opposed to just Fenwick) is only tracked when the score is within one goal in the first and second periods and tied in the third period and overtime. These restrictions were chosen because when a game is not close, puck-possession numbers tend to be an inaccurate gauge of how good a team is. A team leading by three goals, for example, will tend to relax its forecheck and play a more defensive-oriented style in order to maintain the lead. This would artificially deflate their possession numbers.

Fenwick Close (FC) is a useful proxy for puck-possession, time in the attacking zone, and scoring chances.

It is closely linked to team success.

Some proof of that: Cup winners tend to be near or at the top of the league in FC.

2012-13: Chicago (2nd)

2011-12: Los Angeles (4th)

2010-11: Boston (14th)

2009-10: Chicago (1st)

2008-09: Pittsburgh (13th)

2007-08: Detroit (1st, highest Fenwick Close ever recorded).

 

Don’t get too excited, Wings fans. If I’m not mistaken, the stat’s only been tracked since 2007.

There are outliers, of course – Pittsburgh and Boston – but the trend is nevertheless obvious. 

 

By Sean Sarcu
ProHockey-fans.com Staff Writer

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