Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Season preview, part three: Your guess is as good as mine

One of the tricks of the season-preview business is that you always start at the bottom and work your way up, building suspense along the way. That’s the basic approach we’ve taken for our NHL preview; on Monday, we covered the Bottom-Feeder Division, and yesterday it was on to the Middle-of-the-Pack Division.

By the end of that second post, we’d covered half the league. And when it went up, fans of the teams that hadn’t been mentioned yet were thrilled. Clearly, this meant their teams were considered Stanley Cup contenders. Celebrations broke out across the hockey world.1

Not so fast.

Today we introduce the “Your Guess Is As Good As Mine” Division. These are the teams that are expected to be … well, pretty much anything. Yes, I’m supposed to be the expert, which means my job is to pretend like I know everything. I don’t. And when it comes to these teams, I’m not ashamed to say I’m stumped.

So here we go: the eight teams with the widest range of possible outcomes. Could the eventual Stanley Cup winner be one of the teams below? Sure could. What about Connor McDavid’s new home? Wouldn’t surprise me. Could one of these teams manage to accomplish both those things? That shouldn’t technically be possible, but what the hell. With this group, all bets are off.

Colorado Avalanche

Last season: 52-22-8, 112 points, first in the Central, upset by Minnesota in the first round

Offseason report: They lost Paul Stastny to free agency, but replaced him with future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla, which is close to a wash. They traded P.A. Parenteau to Montreal for Danny Briere and lost backup goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere to retirement. And they named Joe Sakic the new GM while demoting Greg Sherman, which was shocking because everybody sort of assumed they had already done that last year.

Also, everyone on the roster got older. That’s not exactly breaking news, since the same could be said for every team, but it seems especially important in Colorado’s case, because this is a team led by an extremely young core. Guys like Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan O’Reilly, and Gabriel Landeskog should all still be improving with each year that goes by. If this team of kids racked up 112 points last year, how much better could they be this year?

Outlook: Ah hell, let’s just get it out of the way now …

Key stat: 46.7 percent — Colorado’s 5-on-5 Fenwick percentage last year, fourth-worst in the league. The Avalanche were a terrible possession team, which tells us they shouldn’t win many games. Now clearly, the Avs did win a lot of games — for one season. But the numbers say it can’t continue, and that a big drop-off this year is inevitable. Remember how last season, Toronto became the lightning-rod team for the analytics argument? That’s the Avalanche this year. And we all remember how that story ended for the Maple Leafs.

So are the Avalanche equally doomed? Maybe, although there’s hope. They could improve their possession game, although that’s no small fix. If they can’t, they’ll need to win with high-percentage shooting and excellent goaltending. They got both last year, including 8.77 percent 5-on-5 shooting that ranked second in the league. With all their talent up front, you’d expect them to be better than average in that category, but history suggests that last year’s numbers probably aren’t sustainable.

And then there’s Semyon Varlamov, who’d essentially been a league-average goalie before breaking out last year and very nearly winning the Vezina. He’s only 26, so it’s possible that last year really did signal his emergence as an elite goaltender. But if he takes a step back to merely very good, the Avalanche could be in trouble.

For their part, the Avalanche brain trust are saying they’re not worried about the analytics. Of course, there’s not much else they could say.

Best case: The Avs beat the percentages and basically repeat last year (minus the early playoff exit), solidifying their place as one of the league’s elite teams. Eat it, math nerds.

Worst case: The percentages catch up to them, and they crash and burn all the way out of the playoff race. Eat it, old-school dinosaurs.

Bold prediction: They earn a Western wild-card spot, and nobody on either side quite feels satisfied.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Last season: 36-24-8, 80 points, third in the East, home ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs, baby! … immediately followed by 2-12-0. The end result: 38-36-8, 84 points, 12th in the East, missed playoffs.

Offseason report: After seeing their season end with yet another collapse, the Leafs moved quickly to shake up the organization by hiring Brendan Shanahan as team president. He kept GM Dave Nonis and coach Randy Carlyle, but fired most of their assistants. That’s not exactly cleaning house, but you can’t help but feel like Nonis and (especially) Carlyle are on borrowed time and know it.

On the ice, the team signed Stephane Robidas and traded for Roman Polak in an attempt to address its consistently leaky blueline, and brought in several cheap free agents to compete for depth spots up front. The Leafs didn’t show much interest in re-signing Nikolai Kulemin or Jay McClement; they did try to bring back Dave Bolland, but lucked out when they were outbid by the Panthers.

Outlook: Much like the Avalanche, the numbers say the Maple Leafs simply can’t win without either fixing their possession problems or posting crazy-high percentages at both ends. Unlike the Avs, the Leafs at least seem to realize that’s a problem. Carlyle and his new staff are making adjustments to the team’s much-maligned defensive system, and Shanahan even hired an analytics team to educate key decision-makers going forward.

Those are positive changes, but they won’t fix the problem right away, which means the Leafs will need another season of excellent goaltending and above-average shooting just to make the playoffs. They can probably get the latter, thanks to a decent forward group led by Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. As far as the goaltending, Jonathan Bernier was excellent last year until he got hurt during his return to Los Angeles on March 13. That left the starter’s job with James Reimer, who took most of the blame for the season-ending slide.

Surprisingly, Reimer is back this year, although the starter’s job is clearly Bernier’s. Between them, they’ll need to provide All-Star-caliber goaltending, at least until Carlyle (or his replacement) can fix the defense. If they do, and if the other key players can stay reasonably healthy like they did last year, then this team can make the playoffs.

Key stat: .911 — Reimer’s save percentage from the moment Bernier was hurt through the end of the season, the stretch in which everyone agreed he was unquestionably terrible and was to blame for the team missing the playoffs. The lesson: Never let yourself get on the wrong side of a narrative in Toronto. The other lesson: With even slightly below-average goaltending, this Maple Leafs team will be terrible.

Best case: Kessel racks up his usual 35 goals and 80 points without breaking a sweat,2 Bernier is fantastic, the free agents help steady the ship, Carlyle and his new staff mesh well, the defensive changes work, Dion Phaneuf settles down, and the team has the same sort of good injury luck that it had last year. The Leafs make the playoffs. Man, that was a long list.

Worst case: The goaltending is just OK, a few guys get hurt, and the defensive improvements don’t pay immediate dividends. By November, they’re already out of the playoff race and Carlyle shifts into full Art Howe–in-Moneyball “I’m playing my team in a way that I can explain in job interviews next year” mode. They get dangerously close to bottom-five territory (but naturally don’t win the lottery), and Shanahan has no choice but to clean house.

Bold prediction: Steve Spott or Peter Horachek is the Leafs’ interim coach by Christmas; somebody currently behind the bench for another NHL team is the Leafs’ coach by next season.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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