Thearon W. Henderson
We conclude our preview of the West with a look at the teams likely to claim the conference's top five seeds.
As Patrick convincingly demonstrated and Eric T. expanded upon this morning, luck will have a much greater impact on the determining the NHL's final standings this season than in any other. So while I think these are pretty conclusively the five best teams in the Western conference, it's really anyone's guess as to who actually finishes first through fifth in 2013. Here's mine:
5. Chicago Blackhawks
Collectively, goaltending and special teams were a deep and talented Blackhawks squad's Achilles' heel last season. Only Toronto, Pittsburgh, the Islanders and Tampa Bay received worse 5v5 goaltending than Chicago, only nine teams generated fewer shots per minute on the power play and no one yielded more shots against per minute on the penalty kill than the Hawks. It perhaps wasn't surprising that a largely unproven Corey Crawford struggled between the pipes, but those kinds of numbers on the man-advantage and shorthanded from a team that boasts Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa up front to go along with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook on the blueline are startling.
I'd be surprised if Crawford is as awful in 2013 as he was a season ago, mostly because he appears to be an NHL-caliber goaltender and it's difficult for those types to sustain ineptitude. I also think that group will largely right the ship on the power play, especially since they were one of the more dominant 5v4 teams in the league the year prior (of course, that was before Brian Campbell took his talents to South Beach). The penalty kill should remain a problem area for Chicago but that's dwarfed in importance by their performance at even-strength which, if last season is any indication, should be excellent. Only the Pens, Wings, Blues and Kings were better possession teams than Chicago in 2011-12. Toews, Kane, Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Keith and Seabrook are all still in the fold so expect them to be a dominant team in all three zones at evens once again. The Hawks should contend for the Central division title but their problems in net and on special teams likely prevent them from winning it outright and, I think, cause them to finish behind the Sharks.
4. San Jose Sharks
In: F Adam Burish (UFA, DAL); D Brad Stuart (UFA, DET)
Out: F Daniel Winnik (UFA, ANA); F Dominic Moore (UFA); F Torrey Mitchell (UFA, MIN); F Benn Ferriero (UFA, PIT); F Brad Winchester (UFA); D Jim Vandermeer (UFA, VAN); D Colin White (UFA)
2011-12 finish: 43-29-10, 96 points, 7th in West
When discussing Nashville's chances yesterday, I talked about how a team's results in a season are dictated by where they fall on a spectrum that ranges from everything going their way to every factor working against them. The Sharks fell much closer to the latter end of the dial in 2011-12. As Patrick showed us last year, the 19-game futility streak that sank San Jose's season and caused them to end up with their lowest finish since missing the playoffs in 2003 was fueled by a brutally low 950 PDO--the Sharks scored on just 5.3% of their 5v5 shots in those games while Niemi and Greiss stopped just 90.2% of the ones they faced.
It's impossible to say how a 48-game season will shake out but it would be remarkable if the Sharks suffered from such awful puck luck again. Which isn't to say that there aren't real, underlying issues in San Jose. On the contrary, the Sharks return with a bottom six arguably even worse than the one that was so bad last season it needed to be completely overhauled at the trade deadline. It's still unknown whether adding Larry Robinson to the bench will be enough to fix a woeful penalty kill. And the team's primary core are marching towards their mid-thirties (or are already past that age, in the case of Dan Boyle) although that could be an advantage in a shortened schedule. Still, it's painfully clear this was a much better team than their record indicated last season. By goal differential alone, they were 5th-best in the West. I think they avoid a truly horrid cold streak this time around and finish 4th.
3. Vancouver Canucks
In: D Jason Garrison (UFA, FLA); D Cam Barker (UFA, EDM); D Jim Vandermeer (UFA, SJS)
Out: F Samuel Pahlsson (UFA, Europe); D Sami Salo (UFA, TBL); D Marc-Andre Gragnani (UFA, CAR)
2011-12 finish: 51-22-9, 111 points, 1st in West
The Northwest Division is still the worst in the conference and if it weren't for the fact that their entire second line will begin the season on injured reserve, I'd pencil in Vancouver for a three-peat atop the West courtesy some point-padding in intradivisional games. But with Ryan Kesler and David Booth replaced in the Canucks' top six by Andrew Ebbett and Zack Kassian, Vancouver could have some serious issues scoring goals in the early going. It also doesn't help that Kesler and Booth are two of the team's best possession forwards and the team's possession game as a whole largely fell off a cliff in the second half of 2011-12 even with those two on the roster.
The big question of course surrounds Roberto Luongo and whether he'll wear a Canucks sweater for the season. It's looking increasingly likely he will, which isn't nearly the tragedy some make it out to be. As Cam Charron laid out in this post, the worst case scenario for Vancouver is that the best goaltender of the past decade is on their team for a few months longer than they intended. The Canucks also beefed up an already-great defense that plays in front of their spectacular goaltending by adding
Cam Barker Jason Garrison. Even with their injuries, the Canucks are still a very good team in a very poor division and should win the Northwest title, although the temporary holes in their top six leave them vulnerable to losing their foothold in the conference.
2. St. Louis Blues
The Blues were considered a surprise team last year but perhaps they shouldn't have been. They were an above-average team territorially each of the previous two seasons and were bringing back a core of David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Alexander Steen and Alex Pietrangelo that have developed into one of the league's finest. The narrative goes that Ken Hitchcock transformed this team into a contender but this has been a fundamentally solid club for some time now. They should continue to be that and more in their first full (well, as "full" as 48 games can be) season with Hitchcock behind the bench and his system--which, granted, was exposed something fierce by the Kings last spring--on the ice.
Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott combined to post a .936 5v5 SV% last season which I feel pretty confident in saying won't happen again in 2013. At the same time, the Blues scored on just 7.5% of their 5v5 shots, a rate they'll probably best this season, particularly with Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz in the fold. Pietrangelo should continue developing into a Norris winner (he deserved to be a finalist last year) although it remains an open question who Hitchcock can pair with him. I'd like to see the Blues add some depth to their back end but, even without that, they look to be the most complete team in the Central and should stake a legitimate claim to the Stanley Cup.
1. Los Angeles Kings
Speaking of the Cup, the defending champions are pretty clearly the class of the West, as they proved not only with their dominant playoff run but with the dominant run-up to their dominant playoff run. The Kings outshot their final 13 opponents of the regular season by a combined total of 451-302 before a run to the Cup that included just four losses. Their trajectory last season is telling; the team instantly improved by replacing Terry Murray behind the bench with Darryl Sutter then ascended into nearly-unbeatable territory by dumping Jack Johnson and adding Jeff Carter at the deadline.
There are reasons to be concerned heading into the 2013 season given injuries to their best player, Anze Kopitar, and one of their most valuable defensemen, Willie Mitchell. But Kopitar has resumed skating and it seems likely he'll draw into the lineup at some point in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, the Kings still have the luxury of icing six highly-skilled top-six forwards and of course Drew Doughty still anchors their impressive defense corps. Add Jonathan Quick in net and you have a roster that just doesn't have any holes. Forget the Rangers, this is the best team in the NHL.