Friday, October 2, 2015

Season preview, part four: The Contenders

Today marks the end of the last week without regular-season hockey until the playoffs arrive in April. It also marks the end of Grantland’s season preview week. On Tuesday, we shook our heads sadly at the Bottom-Feeder Division. On Wednesday, we shrugged our shoulders at the Middle-of-the-Pack Division. And yesterday, we threw our hands in the air over the confounding No-Clue Division.

That leaves only one group left to go: the Contenders Division. The seven teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup. Other teams will spend the year talking about progress and moral victories and finding something positive to take out of that loss. Not these guys. It’s Cup or bust, right out of the gate. And the odds are good one of them will get it.

If you’ve been checking off the teams throughout the week, you may have noticed something interesting about today’s list: It’s going to be heavily tilted to the East, with five of the seven teams coming from the Eastern Conference. What’s up with that? Has the historically weaker conference finally caught up?

Maybe, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. A more likely explanation is that this year’s East is up for grabs, with up to a half-dozen teams that could realistically take the top spot without it being considered a surprise. Meanwhile, the West is somewhat more top-heavy, with the Hawks and the Ducks and (maybe) the Kings settling in as the consensus picks. It’s tough to be a Cup favorite if there’s a team in your conference that’s a solid step or two ahead of you, so the West ends up with fewer top-tier teams even though it may well be the better conference yet again.

With that out of the way, on to the contenders …

Chicago Blackhawks

Last season: 48-28-6, 102 points, third in the Central and seventh overall, won the Stanley Cup.

Offseason report: Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman got back from the parade, finished off his beer, and then blew the dust off the “How to retool after a Cup win” manual he’s spent the past few years writing. Once again, cap pressure forced the Hawks to part with some valued pieces, including Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya (both of whom ended up in Dallas), Brad Richards (Detroit), and Brandon Saad (Columbus). Most teams would have a tough time withstanding that sort of exodus. Most teams aren’t the Blackhawks.

Outlook: Losing Sharp, Saad, and others will hurt. But the core is still in place, and as long as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith are playing at their peak, the Blackhawks will be contenders. That’s not a sure thing — Kane’s sexual assault investigation is ongoing and could still result in charges that could take him out of the lineup — and every team eventually runs into bad luck with injuries or off years. But as long as those three are in the lineup and playing well, the Hawks are close to playoff locks.

Key number: 65 — Number of playoff games the Blackhawks have played over the last three years. That’s one more than the 64 the Kings played from 2012 to 2014, a number everyone latched on to as the prime culprit in their disappointing 2014-15 season. That’s not to say the Hawks will miss the playoffs, but at some point fatigue has to be a concern.

Watchability index: 9/10. If you don’t like watching Keith play hockey, there’s either something seriously wrong with you or you’re cheering for Chicago’s opponents.

Best case: There hasn’t been a repeat Cup winner in the salary-cap era, and nobody’s even made it back to the final since the 2009 Penguins–Red Wings rematch. But the Hawks could absolutely pull it off, and with so much of the Central in flux, their first division title in three years is there for the taking too.

Worst case: Kane’s situation drags on, Keith and Marian Hossa occasionally look like guys in their thirties instead of cyborgs, the top six misses Sharp more than expected, and the accumulated weight of the last three postseasons drags everyone down into an off year. They still make the playoffs but bow out early.

Suggested slogan: We almost made it through an entire preview without anyone mentioning that Corey Crawford might be overrated.

Bold prediction: The Hawks have a typical Hawks year, cruising through the regular season before slamming on the gas once the playoffs arrive. But this time, there’s not enough left in the tank for a full trip; they don’t make it out of Round 2.

New York Rangers

Last season: 53-22-7, 113 points, first in the Metro and first overall, lost in the conference finals.

Offseason report: The Rangers dealt backup goalie Cam Talbot to the Oilers and lost Martin St. Louis to retirement. They also swapped Carl Hagelin for Emerson Etem in a cap-inspired move. But the biggest change came in the front office, where longtime GM Glen Sather stepped aside. Jeff Gorton replaces him.

Outlook: The Rangers are one of only two teams (joining the Hawks) to have been to the final four in each of the last two seasons. They’ve been knocking on the door; the question is how much time they have left to step through.

The Rangers aren’t exactly an old team, but they’ve got several key players on the wrong side of 30, including Dan Boyle (39), Rick Nash (31), Dan Girardi (31), and, most importantly, Henrik Lundqvist (33). There’s also some cap pressure on the way, with Chris Kreider needing a new deal next year and Keith Yandle likely to depart as a free agent next summer.

There’s no sense of panic in New York, nor should there be. But a sense of urgency? Probably, yeah.

Key number: 2 — Consecutive years in which Rick Nash has led the league in shots taken during the postseason. The actual production hasn’t quite been there, although last year’s 14 points in 19 games was reasonable. And sure, he’s paid big bucks to score, so results matter. But when a guy is generating that many chances, it’s time to drop the “Nash disappears in the playoffs” narrative.

Watchability index: 7/10. Just don’t gaze too long into Lundqvist’s eyes. Uh, no reason.

Best case: While everyone’s waiting to anoint the Caps or Islanders as the Metro’s Next Big Thing, the Rangers just keep winning, all the way back to the final.

Worst case: The worst possible scenario is that Lundqvist starts to slow down; at 33, he’s reached the age when that typically happens to most goalies. He’s not most goalies, and some guys continue to excel for years into their mid- or even late thirties. But this guy is the franchise, and if he does start to falter, the Rangers’ short-term Cup chances will plummet.

Suggested slogan: Your 2014-15 Presidents’ Trophy champions! We think. Wait, didn’t the Ducks end up catching us? You know what, even we don’t care.

Bold prediction: The Rangers’ streak of Metro dominance ends thanks to a seven-game upset at the hands of the Islanders.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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