Thursday, October 2, 2014

Season preview, part four: The contenders

And then there were seven. After covering the bottom feeders, the middle of the pack, and those that defy any logical projection, NHL season preview week wraps up today with our final group of teams: the best of the best.

If you’ve been following along all week, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for. Appearing on the list below all but guarantees that a team will go on to have a good season. By now you’re probably squirming with suspense, wondering whether your favorite team was fortunate enough to …

Wait, if you’ve been following all week, then by process of elimination you already know who’s on the list. Crap. I didn’t think this through very well.

Ah, well. Here are my picks, in no particular order, for the seven teams that enter the season as Stanley Cup favorites.

Los Angeles Kings

Last season: 46-28-8, 100 points, third place in the Pacific Division, won the Stanley Cup

Offseason report: Cap pressure prevented them from adding much, although they did manage to re-sign playoff hero Marian Gaborik as well as Matt Greene. Willie Mitchell and Colin Fraser were lost to free agency; both were solid contributors, but not critical pieces.

Minor tweaks aside, this year’s Kings will essentially be the same as last year’s version. That’s not good news for the rest of the league.

Outlook: The Kings finished last year ranked 25th in goals scored and first in goals allowed, so it’s not hard to see which end of the ice they’re best at. Team defense, from two-way force Anze Kopitar to blueline stud Drew Doughty, is excellent, and they implement Darryl Sutter’s system just about perfectly. Jonathan Quick is a divisive goalie; some view him as a sure-thing superstar, while others see merely a good goaltender on the league’s best defensive team, with a reputation inflated by a few playoff hot streaks. In either case, he’ll deliver strong numbers, and if he gets hurt, there’s always last year’s rookie breakout, Martin Jones.

That leaves the goal scoring, which has been the Kings’ weak spot for several years now. So far they’ve managed to flick the switch on the offense once the playoffs start, but that’s not something you want to count on every year. A full season of Gaborik will help if he can stay healthy all year, which he often doesn’t.

Key stat: 56.74 — the Kings’ Fenwick percentage at 5-on-5/close, the best in the league by a decent margin. In other words, no team has the puck more than L.A. This stat is also one of the best predictors we have of future success, which is why analytics guys get little hearts in their eyes whenever they talk about the Kings.

Best case: They continue to be impossible to score on, the offense finds a pulse, and they cruise through the year on the way to adding a Presidents’ Trophy to their hardware case.

Worst case: They once again struggle to score goals, and Quick and the defense lapse just enough that they take a small step back and into the mid-90s point range, which in the West means they have to sweat a little for their playoff spot.

Bold prediction: Coming off last year’s strong playoff run and a Conn Smythe near miss, Doughty rides that momentum and another strong season to his first career Norris.

New York Rangers

Last season: 45-31-6, 96 points, second in the Metro, lost to the Kings in the Stanley Cup Final

Offseason report: The Rangers turned over a big chunk of the bottom half of their roster, as cap pressure had them parting ways with useful contributors like Brad Richards, Benoit Pouliot, Brian Boyle, Derek Dorsett, and Anton Stralman. They restocked by adding a handful of players, most notable veteran blueliner Dan Boyle and winger Lee Stempniak.

Outlook: Despite the offseason shakeup, the Rangers are returning essentially the same core that made a run to the final last year. They’ll miss Derek Stepan for the season’s first month or two with a broken leg, but they’ll have a full season of Martin St. Louis, and the addition of Boyle should help. And of course, they have arguably the best goaltender on the planet in Henrik Lundqvist. They should at least match and probably exceed last year’s regular-season success. The deep playoff run is a longer shot, but certainly not out of the question.

Key stat: $81 million — the total amount of salary and buyouts on the books for the Rangers this season, the highest total in the league by almost $3 million. (They’re still under the $69 million salary cap, barely, because that’s based on the average annual value of each contract, not the total dollars paid out in a given year.)

Best case: They make it all the way back to the final, and this time they don’t suffer from awful puck luck once they get there.

Worst case: A long-term Lundqvist injury could drop them all the way out of playoff contention, although he’s been a workhorse his whole career, so that seems unlikely. More realistically, if aging veterans like St. Louis, Boyle, and/or Rick Nash start to slow down, it could spell trouble for a team that finished just 11th in the conference in goals scored last year. And remember, they’re coming off a short offseason, so fatigue could become a factor.

Bold prediction: We finally get an Islanders/Rangers playoff matchup for the first time in 20 years.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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