Thursday, November 21, 2013

A preview review: How do my preseason predictions look so far?

The NHL season reached an important milestone this week, as every team in the league has now crossed the 20-game mark. Not only does that mean the season is one-quarter over, but traditionally, that it's also now OK to start drawing conclusions about teams.

Of course, none of us actually wait that long to start passing judgment. In fact, we all get started before opening night even arrives. The prediction-filled season preview is practically mandatory at this point, and we here at Grantland were no different.

My preview ran on October 1. Inspired by the NHL's recent realignment, I decided to re-realign the league into four new divisions: contenders, bottom-feeders, teams that were stuck in the middle, and a fourth group that I had no idea what to do with.

So now that we've reached the quarter pole, let's evaluate the evaluations. Twenty games in, here's how I'm doing so far.

The Legitimate Contender Division

Anze Kopitar #11 of the Los Angeles Kings

This seven-team division was meant to include the cream of the crop — the teams that would separate from the pack and establish themselves as the clear Stanley Cup favorites.

Teams I was mostly right about: Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues

All three teams have been excellent so far. None are running away and hiding, because they all play in the West and the Western Conference is basically your copy of NHL 95 after your college roommate got drunk and edited all the players to have 99 ratings. But they're still very good.

The Blues and Blackhawks were expected to be the two best teams in the Central, and they've mostly held up their end of the bargain, despite the emergence of the Avalanche and Wild. Chicago has done it about the way you'd expect — with a balanced offense, strong defense, and goaltending that's been good enough.

The Blues have been a bit more interesting. They're supposed to be that team that's efficient bordering on dull, relying on team defense and excellent goaltending without the flashy offensive numbers. Instead, Alex Steen has spent much of the season leading the league in scoring while starter Jaroslav Halak has struggled.

Meanwhile, the Kings are the Kings — lurking around the bottom of the playoff seedings, terrifying the teams above them that might get stuck playing L.A. in the postseason. The loss of Jonathan Quick should have been crushing, but instead it has ushered in the Ben Scrivens Era.

Teams I was maybe wrong about: Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins

All three of these teams have been decent, and two are even leading their divisions. But the cream of the crop? That may be pushing it.

In hindsight, I shouldn't have chosen anyone from the East. The entire conference is a train wreck, so much so that the first-place team wouldn't even be in the playoff picture if it moved West. The West has been the better conference for years, but this season's imbalance is so extreme that it can't possibly continue. But so far, nobody in the East has earned Cup-favorite status.

Team I was super-wrong about: New York Rangers

The Rangers had been the East's top seed in 2011-12, the last full 82-game season. They'd taken a step back in last year's lockout-shortened campaign, and that had cost John Tortorella his job, but there was every reason to think they'd regain their spot at the top of the standings under new coach Alain Vigneault.

Instead, they started slow and have struggled to get above the .500 mark. Part of that is understandable, since the renovations for Madison Square Garden kept them on the road for the season's first nine games. But they haven't been all that much better since.

There's hope, though. Henrik Lundqvist is healthy and playing well, and Rick Nash made his return from a head injury Tuesday. And, of course, they play in the embarrassingly awful Metro division, where their 10-11-0 record is still good enough for a playoff spot.

The Rangers should be fine. But a clear Cup contender? Swing and a miss.

Quote that makes me look smart: "Adding [Daniel] Alfredsson doesn't make [the Red Wings] any younger, obviously, so the potential for major drop-offs and/or injuries is significant."

Quote I would like to have back: "On paper, you could make a case for the Rangers being the most talented team in the league."

Three predictions for the rest of the way: The Bruins pull away in the East. The Rangers get it figured out and easily capture the third Metro playoff spot. The Blues pull the trigger on a late-season trade for Ryan Miller.

>> Read the full post on Grantland


  1. "In hindsight, I shouldn't have chosen anyone from the East. The entire conference is a train wreck, so much so that the first-place team wouldn't even be in the playoff picture if it moved West."

    Sean, I thought this was a pretty lazy piece of analysis. You neglected to account for (A) teams playing different amounts of games, and (B) the top 8 Western teams being within two points of each other in the standings.

    The Bruins currently have 29 points in 21 games, while the Ducks have a league leading 33 points in 24 games. This mean that if the Bruins played three more games to match them, won two, and got a win or OT/SO loss in the other, they would have the best record in the league by points.

  2. @Tameen Hasan: so you're basically saying 'if the Bruins get more points per game in the games they have to catch up than they've gotten until now, and the other teams in front of them (Avs, Blackhawks, Blues, Sharks, Coyotes, Kings, Ducks) don't, they'll top the league'. I think it's safe to say that Sean is spot on here.

    As for the slumping Avs: I know their advanced stats don't look very good, but they're still second in points percentage and lead the league in ROW with 16, 2 more than everyone else with games in hand. They have zero sucker points, so even if they start to lose more we can also expect them to get a bonus point once in a while. So far they're still right in the picture.