Greetings, and welcome to ScoreBoredSports’ first annual NHL Season Preview. It’s an honor to be tapping out a few words on the state of mankind’s greatest game: hockey.
I wasn’t born on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, as the game itself was, but I am originally from the suburbs of Detroit (which is kind of close). I’m from a wintery land that sprawled across great distances of strip-mall flatness, but united under the banner of Hockeytown. So there is no need to mask this great love I have for the Detroit Red Wings, the most consistently excellent sports franchise of the last quarter-century.
That being said, I will either lay aside or lay bare my biases; it’s the game itself we love in the end anyway, dammit. So let’s break down this upcoming season, division-by-division. There will be a vague method to the madness. Important factors to consider will include roster movement, player development, goaltending, a glance at the advanced stats, and other observations.
*A quick note about those advanced metrics: I’m not an expert. I can barely count. Yet I find many advanced metrics are useful, and quite reliable in predicting trends such as “regression towards the mean,” otherwise known as “not getting lucky all the time.” But context is vital. For example, some statistics, such as War-On-Ice’s Goalkeeper Adjusted Save Percentage, might suggest that Jonas Gustavsson (92.52) is a better goalie than two-time Stanley Cup champion Jonathan Quick (92.50).
Jonas Gustavsson is not a better goalie than Jonathan Quick. We know this because we have eyes (see above). And brains, which we will never forget to use. Just look at how out of position he is on this play.
We’ll begin by discussing the Metropolitan Division, mainly so I get writing about Crosby out of the way as soon as possible, that knave.
- Blue Jackets
Interesting situation in Columbus, and no, I’m not talking about Ohio State graduates’ curious behavior of eating paste — Columbus is a team with some indicators for serious progress. Yet, as with anything that happens in Ohio, the franchise has a cyclical history of failure. I’m always curious about players that possess the puck as well as Brandon Saad, a recent outcast of Joel Quenneville’s Blackhawk dynasty that emphasizes speed and puck control (I liked Coach Q better when he was choking against Scotty Bowman every year, for the record). Their overall team PDO — combination of shooting percentage and save percentage, and frequently-reliable indicator of luck — was below average last year. With the inclusion of a player like Saad, perhaps the team will find a more potent and fluid offensive game, and maybe more puck luck.
The major question is whether Nick Foligno can sustain the kind of offensive production we saw last year in his breakout campaign, and what kind of progress is made in the defensive corps. Jack Johnson never turned out to be a world-beater, but he’s a competent first-pairing defenseman, and David Savard looked to be able to put up numbers, scoring 11 goals and racking up 105 hits on the year. Beyond those two, Fedor Tyutin hasn’t played a full season since 2011, and there’s not much else to speak of in terms of talent. The cupboard is fairly barren in the organization’s depth, too. There may be some room to sneak into the playoffs in the Eastern conference, as Ottawa is unlikely to repeat their miracle run another year, Boston has molted, and questions abound in Pittsburgh. Yet another riser in the Buffalo Sabres may present new challenges. I see this team rising, but only enough to squeak into the playoffs and likely lose to whoever they face in the first round.
Speaking of underlying advanced metrics, it surprised me greatly to discover that the Islanders, a playoff team that narrowly missed a second-round berth, tied for the sixth-worst PDO number in the NHL last season. The logic follows in some senses, as many of the Isles key skill players were injured for stretches, and a lot of highly-skilled but inexperienced youth, such as Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome, played heavy minutes. But there’s no real evidence that shooting percentage increases with age, and those kids made the playoffs! Look at Halak’s save percentage, too: it checks in at a reasonable .914 in a highly successful, 38-win campaign. This tells me that with a healthier stable of elite skill players (Okposo, Leddy, Boychuk), this is a team poised for continued excellence.
Looking at the roster, nearly every important player on the team is around 25 years old, including perennial Hart Trophy candidate Jonathan Tavares. Add the recently signed, offensively-gifted octogenarian Marek Zidlicky, and you have an experienced and versatile defensive corps. Depending on their progress, the inclusion of high-level talent from the team’s development system may provide that extra spark in a tight playoff series. First-round draft prospects such as Josh Ho-Sang, Michael Dal Colle, and goal-scoring D-man Ryan Pulock (who led the Isles AHL affiliate defenders in scoring despite missing a quarter of the season) have all sorts of talent, but may have trouble breaking into a deep lineup. I’d dare even call them… Contenders?
Until the day he’s not, Henrik Lundqvist
is the handsomest most charmingly reminiscent of a younger Bradley Cooper is a reliably brilliant net minder. Only recently has the question of his health, with a scary throat injury, come to the fore. But if he’s healthy, this team looks like it could return to the top echelon of the Eastern conference yet again. There’s room to grow in their possession numbers; I wonder what sort of effect the transition from former coach John Tortorella’s block-everything mentality to Alain Vigneault speed-oriented breakout game has had on the team’s mediocre team Corsi figure. The most interesting layer may be if Keith “the Candle” Yandle will start to affect what was a surprisingly lackluster power-play last year, which connected on only 16.8% of its opportunities (good for 21st in the NHL). The team will conversely have to cope with the loss of tiny legend Martin St. Louis, whose salt & pepper wisdom was surely a locker-room boon. Yet there’s enough young or emerging talent across the team boasting speed and skill, like Jesper Fast, Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, and the surging Derrick Brassard, that the loss may prove to be addition by subtraction. Otherwise, this is a team with an elite defensive corps and my least favorite NHL player, Rick Nash.
They continue to add talent to a roster that was already full of high-level talent. Losing Mike Green won’t hurt so much in a Barry Trotz system that emphasizes responsibility, defense, studious back checking, and fiscal planning. Bringing on Justin Williams to replace their own playoff producer, Joel Ward, is a smart move at a relatively low cost, even though we all know Williams won’t be scoring 30 goals during the regular season. This is still a team with Alex Ovechkin, Braden Holtby, and a top-flight defensive crew, with tremendous younger talent in players like Johansson, Kuznetsov, and Burakowsky. My one sticking point with this team’s summer is the trading of Troy Brouwer for TJ Oshie, which I found to be un-needed as Brouwer seems as likely to plop in 20 goals as Oshie, only he brings hits and plays more games. Nonetheless, Trotz is a good coach and I could see this being the year he sneaks into the finals.
- Sidney Crosby is the best hockey player in the world, I understand. But is there any more sniveling, dirty, hot-headed star in recent memory? Sure, he’s the best player, but how can you root for Crosby? He routinely slashes his opponents on weak spots like ankles, wrists, and crotches. He loves to face-wash opposing players, even tough guys, as if anyone in the NHL wants to be the guy that turned the Face Of The League into a pile of quivering viscera, snot, and tears. Crosby knows this, yet he dangles his untouchability in front of everyone, flaunting the fact that his brain is probably one jolt away from retirement in front of dudes who would relish the chance to pummel him. So, you can’t touch the league’s proverbial money-maker, even as it shakes in your personal space. It makes me hugely hopeful for the success of Connor McDavid; that, Lord Stanley willing, he turns out to be less of an arrogant penis.
- I do wonder what will happen with the pairing of Crosby and Kessel in terms of interviews and TV presence. It already sounds like the most unwatchable buddy sitcom pairing, but I just feel for the people of Pittsburgh’s overall entertainment quotient. My advice? Just mute the games and watch the hockey, because it may be very fast and full of a lot of goals, but not charisma. I’m sure they’ll survive.
- The growth of Philly’s first line over the last few years would be more pleasurable to watch if the Flyers weren’t an evil organization of haggard witch-trolls. But I can’t help but glance at the foundation of Giroux and Voracek as championship-caliber. Giroux is easily one of the five best all-around players in the league, and Voracek has improved every single year, and is young enough to continue that pattern. Wayne Simmonds is a wrecking ball that just happens to wreck up the other team’s plans for a shutout about thirty times every year. Can anyone else step up to fill in the secondary scoring roles on a consistent basis? The defense, while brimming with burly players, seems to have an odd fulcrum in Michael Del Zotto. He had a decent year in 2015, and is still only 25 despite being in the league for a while. Might he be an unlikely candidate to rise?
- The New Jersey Devils and The Carolina Hurricanes are NHL hockey teams featuring some players. Corey Schneider is a very good goalie. They are neither rising nor falling, because they were and are bad. That’s about it.
Stay Tuned for Part 2, Coming Soon!
Stats and info courtesy of NHL.com, hockeysfuture.com, rotoworld.com, and war-on-ice.com.