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The Thinking Fan's Guide To The 2014-15 NHL Season

We enter a very different NHL after the "Summer of Stats," and we have the Maple Leafs to thank.

The analytical approach that began making inroads in front offices a decade ago, and among smart fans and media not long after that, has finally become fully mainstream, thanks in large part to the Leafs being as awful as everyone predicted. They were seen as the last best hope for the non-analytics argument, due to how regularly their coach and executives scoffed at the idea that there was more to the game than the eye could see. When Toronto crashed and burned, it started a run on stats bloggers akin to when everyone in a fantasy hockey draft starts scooping up goalies toward the end of the second round.


Stats nerds, long derided in the sport for not "watching the games," spent the entire summer getting scooped up by eager NHL teams. The Maple Leafs hired an assistant GM, Kyle Dubas, who found considerable success in dealing with these stats at the junior level, then built an analytics department with three bloggers, including the guy who created the now-defunct Extra Skater. The Edmonton Oilers hired Tyler Dellow to serve as a kind of complement to the coaching staff. The New Jersey Devils hired Sunny Mehta, a former Oilers blogger and professional poker player, to head up their analytic investigations into the sport. Mystery teams likewise scooped up Eric Tulsky, a Flyers blogger for SB Nation and big-time stats guy; Dimitri Filipovic, a stats guy who blogged for the Sporting News; and Corey Sznajder, who writes about the Hurricanes and was manually tracking zone entries for a ludicrous number of games.

Other teams have invested in this approach before, including the Penguins, Blackhawks, Kings, and Bruins, all of whom are among the most successful teams in recent years. These teams are doubling down on their own analytics; an arms race is on.

"Fancy stats" are here to stay. The nerds have won. So it seems prudent to examine the 2014-15 season through the lens of those numbers, and what they tell us about each team. While possession certainly isn't the only thing in hockey (the most successful franchises will tell your their data works best as part of the picture, not the whole), it's the most controllable.

Here's a look at all 30 teams, grouped not by how they should finish in the standings but by how they should do at the things analytics guys like. As last year's Avalanche could tell you, those can be two very different things.


Awful possession numbers

Buffalo Sabres: They're trying really hard to once again be the worst team in the league, in a hilariously cynical attempt to land Connor McDavid in the draft. (The NHL has changed the weighting of its draft odds to discourage exactly this.) They might not be as "successful" this time around, however. They improved this summer, bringing in a ton of useful if underwhelming veterans — Brian Gionta, Matt Moulson, and Andrej Meszaros — and last year's performance was stultifying in its bad luck. Even with their possession numbers still being poor (bet on it), Buffalo almost can't be as bad as it was last season, and they have promising young talent such as Rasmus Ristolainen, Jake McCabe, and Sam Reinhart to at least paint a nice picture of progress. They'll still finish somewhere at the bottom, of course, but it'll be a close race.


Calgary Flames: Calgary could legitimately be the worst in the league. The only area in which they improved over the summer was in net, which won't help possession but will keep a few more pucks out. They have one line and one defensive pairing — and that's about it. No depth at all (this will be a recurring theme league-wide). That top group is weirdly among the most successful possession lines in the league. A since-deleted tweet from Dellow — that's what you have to do when you get hired by an NHL team, apparently — showed the Flames' corsi share when T.J. Brodie, Mark Giordano, and Mikael Backlund are on the ice is 63.7 percent. Without, it's just 42 percent.

Aside from the top five guys, the Flames' lines and pairings constitute a series of ever-bigger tire fires. They're going to rely on possession black holes Deryk Engelland, Ladislav Smid, David Jones, and at least one pure fighter in the lineup just about every night. At least it's a good year to be terrible. If they're not in the McDavid hunt, they ought to fire everyone for being incompetent at being incompetent.


Carolina Hurricanes: A lot of where the 'Canes finish depends on who they use in goal. Anton Khudobin looks like a legitimate starter, but he split time with the corpse of Cam Ward's career last season. That seems to be the plan again this year, but at least this time Ward's leash will be short no matter how much he's getting paid.

Carolina will also have to contend with the fact that Jordan Staal is out for months with a broken leg, so they won't have any centers worth employing apart from big brother Eric. That's the same Eric Staal, by the way, who posted nearly career-worst numbers in goals and points per game. Even though he should improve, it won't help much. Good luck.


Colorado Avalanche: The team that all the analytics say will be terrible (27th in the league last year, and they actively got worse this summer), but which takes its "Finished Second in the West Last Season" trophy to the trophy-polisher's shop twice a week. They did so despite literally just two players — Tyson Barrie and Paul Stastny, the latter of whom is now in St. Louis — posting positive corsi ratings.

Gabriel Landeskog should see his scoring come down, because his on-ice shooting percentage can't stay at 10.5 all year. Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene, likewise, were way too high in that regard, but their progression as players and growing ice time will likely help them make up the difference. The guy who's poised to have the biggest drop-off is goaltender Semyon Varlamov. His career average even-strength save percentage was .925 entering last year; it exploded to .931. He's likely to regress heavily, and all those one-goal games the Avs won last season (a league-best 28-4-8) will stop going their way.


But still, the Avs firmly believe that the analytics don't really apply to them because their internal numbers say they're actually pretty good.

"We're going analytics, are we?" Avs executive Joe Sakic said, with a mixture of amusement and contempt for the numbers that suggest his team is more lucky than good.

"You make me feel so good," [coach Patrick] Roy told me, "because I'm not a math guy, either. And I'm happy that way."


The 2013-14 Leafs, for the record, often said similar things. Another thing that'll be similar about this year's Avs and last year's Leafs? Their fates.

Winnipeg Jets: The Jets have a few of the tools necessary to be good in the NHL, like reliable top-six forwards (Bryan Little, Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd), and a very strong blue line (Toby Enstrom, Zach Bogosian, Grant Clitsome, Jacob Trouba, etc.). They also can't stop shooting themselves in the foot. Ondrej Pavelec, with his career .916 ES save percentage, remains the worst starting goalie in the league by a fair margin, but continues to be their starter when literally almost anyone else would be an improvement. Their best defenseman, Dustin Byfuglien, is still being iced as a forward. Why? No one can give you a good answer! Even being decent at possession, which they almost were (48.8 percent), isn't going to be enough to keep this team anywhere near the playoff threshold. They're awful and will continue to be until they dump their goalie and GM.


The jury's still out

Arizona Coyotes: It's hard to be a believer in the Coyotes, who are basically the most average team in the league in every way. Average forwards 1-12, average defense, average starting and backup goalies. Their team CF% of 50.5 last year speaks to this. The problem is that being average in this league doesn't get you very far, because the shootout and loser point essentially create the appearance that everyone is better than they probably are. They're also in a division with three titans in San Jose, Los Angeles, and Anaheim. They don't have enough ammo to compete.


Edmonton Oilers: You have to give it to the Oilers. They bought in hard on analytics this summer. In addition to snagging Dellow, perhaps the most prominent name in the industry for this kind of thing, they also signed stat darlings Benoit Pouliot (54.9 CF% last year) and Mark Fayne (55.3%) to relatively affordable deals.

They also have a long, long, long way to go before you can call them competitive. They do not currently have an NHL-ready No. 2 center, and for that reason might foolishly start third overall pick Leon Draisaitl with the big club because their other options are Boyd Gordon and Mark Arcobello. If you're saying, "Who?" you are correct. They're finally headed in the right direction, but it's probably not going to be enough this season.


Florida Panthers: Florida was awful last year, finishing 29th. But when you look at their 2013-14 corsi numbers (13th in the league) and their 2014-15 roster, there's no way they shouldn't be significantly better. They've got good depth down the middle in Nick Bjugstad, Alex Barkov, and Dave Bolland; high-quality young talent like Jonathan Huberdeau, Quinton Howden, Drew Shore, and No.1 overall pick this year Aaron Ekblad; a solid blue line with Brian Campbell, Erik Gudbranson, and Dmitry Kulikov. And with Roberto Luongo as their starter instead of a crew of guys you almost can't believe are still in the league (Tim Thomas, Scott Clemmensen, Jacob Markstrom, and Dan Ellis all got at least a handful of games last year), this could be a half-decent club.

Minnesota Wild: Who the hell knows? They made the playoffs last year with 98 points despite finishing 23rd in possession. But they also improved in the summer, most notably by adding Thomas Vanek. Two of their three goalies are perpetually on the shelf and/or bad. Now, it might not matter in the end, because to this point in his career Darcy Kuemper has been pretty damn good. Not "Josh Harding's Totally Unrepeatable 2013-14" good, but good nonetheless. Of course, with the way they dicked Harding around this summer before he finally signed an extension, it seems even the team doesn't really buy it.


They'll be one of the more interesting teams to watch, especially as they're apparently planning to finally eschew their boring, long-practiced dump-and-chase style. Best-case scenario: they get somewhere near their point total from last year. Worst-case: they miss the playoffs by a decent enough margin to be embarrassing.

Montreal Canadiens: Here's another team that substantially outperformed dreadful possession numbers last season (24th) — probably due to Carey Price being out of this world, with the team finishing sixth in even-strength save percentage — and lucked their way as far as the Eastern Conference Final. They improved in some ways (adding possession drivers P.A. Parenteau and Tom Gilbert could be huge) and didn't in others (their bottom six forwards still aren't great). But they're solid enough that it might not matter very much; Price, Max Pacioretty, and P.K. Subban alone could make a team moderately successful. But those numbers are troubling.


Nashville Predators: The Preds dismissed the only coach they'd ever had and brought on Peter Laviolette. They might not actually be painful to watch because, unlike almost every Preds team ever, they're at least going to play uptempo. But whether they're going to be any good is another issue entirely, because their possession numbers were poor, and the difference-makers brought in minimal.

They added James Neal up front (trading away Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling), and brought in Mike Ribeiro to be his center. They generally addressed last season's massive center issue with quantity over quality, adding Olli Jokinen and Derek Roy. While Roy is decent in tough roles, Jokinen isn't even that much in easy ones any more. A full season of Pekka Rinne between the pipes will help, but they're in the Division of Death, so there's almost no way they make the playoffs.


Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers could be monumentally bad. Steve Mason was very good last year, but you can't count on a guy with a career .916 even-strength save percentage to keep posting a .925. Especially when you consider how bad the defense in front of him is going to be. This is the team on which the Islanders dumped Andrew MacDonald, and Kimmo Timonen — unequivocally their best blue liner last year, with a relative corsi about 4.5 points ahead of the next-closest guy — is probably done for the season with blood clots. Up front, they're thin and committed to bad players (like R.J. Umberger) for a while, and even Claude Giroux might not be good enough to fix it. The possession numbers were 20th last year and it's easy to see them getting worse now.

Toronto Maple Leafs: The team that started it all (30th in possession for the second year in a row, baby!) definitely improved this summer, but it probably wasn't enough. Under a coach like Randy Carlyle, this almost certainly doesn't become a club that does all the little things right to keep the puck, and certainly not overnight. Jonathan Bernier likely coming back to earth also won't help. Expect another year without the playoffs in Toronto, no matter how many stats guys they hire.


However, it must be said that Carlyle and GM Dave Nonis probably aren't long for this world. Leafs fans might want to root for a lengthy, miserable losing streak, because you get the feeling that new team president Brendan Shanahan has an itchy trigger finger. That's probably why he already fired all the assistant coaches and assistant GMs who were with the team last year. Both Carlyle and Nonis talk now about how much they've always valued corsi, despite the fact that they spent much of the last two years actively deriding it. It's a political, job-saving move to praise analytics now, and it's not going to work for very long.

Washington Capitals: Ex-Preds boss Barry Trotz is the fourth new coach in as many years, and predecessor Adam Oates left him with a disaster (26th in possession and in no way a fluke). The team's big signings this summer to address the blue line, the biggest problem by far, were a baffling mix of judicious (Matt Niskanen) and terrible (Brooks Orpik). Alex Ovechkin might be moved back to left wing, but at least he won't be centered by Jay Beagle. There's almost no way this is a playoff team, and even if they do make it — Trotz is a good coach but not a miracle worker — they're going to get steamrolled.


Good possession numbers

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks clearly improved this summer, because their biggest problem was depth. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are usually enough to drive the bus every night; they were one point back of the best record last season despite having possession numbers that were very middle-of-the-road. It's not necessarily luck because Getzlaf and Perry are usually good enough together to win you games. To wit, Anaheim scored two out of every three goals when they were on the ice together. But without improvement they would, in theory, have probably taken a step back in the standings this year.


So they added Ryan Kesler, who should help a lot through his decent scoring, good possession numbers, and ability to eat ice time against tough competition, and turfed a league-average goaltender in Jonas Hiller in favor of a Frederik Andersen/John Gibson platoon (Andersen will probably see more ice time, though). But the possession numbers need to improve considerably from 49.8 percent (19th league-wide) for the Ducks to count on a repeat of last season's pace.

Columbus Blue Jackets: A team that was a little sub-average in possession didn't really make any big tweaks this summer. Their only major transaction was swapping out the awful-and-expensive R.J. Umberger for the good-and-also-expensive Scott Hartnell. Hartnell isn't going to be revelatory, but he's going to help on the second line. And now that Ryan Johansen has finally been re-signed, the likelihood that they'll get another 30 goals from their top-line center seems strong. Once Boone Jenner and Nathan Horton come back from injury, that makes for a formidable top line.


Dallas Stars: Few teams improved as much this summer as the Stars, because no other team traded for Jason Spezza and signed Ales Hemsky to reform the powerful duo they created in Ottawa toward the end of last season. Each was at about a point per game during that final stretch in which their corsi together was 53.9 percent; apart they were 51.5 and 48 percent, respectively.

The Stars were pretty good last year despite being relatively young — 50.5 percent, 14th in the NHL — so expect them to be better just from having one more year of experience. The blue line is still a big question mark, even with some good top-end guys like Alex Goligoski, Brenden Dillon, and Trevor Daley, but they should make the jump to being one of the four or five best teams in the West.


Detroit Red Wings: The problem with Detroit is simple. They barely made the playoffs last year, and their best players are now a year older and more injury-prone. They have some impressive young talent (most notably Gustav Nyquist, and Tomases Tatar and Jurco), but the question is whether they're going to be impressive enough, soon enough. Having the puck a lot (ninth in the league last year) helps, but this looks like a team that's barely going to scrape into the postseason again, in a best-case scenario.

The season mainly hinges on Jimmy Howard, and the iffy health of their big-money players, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Howard was uncharacteristically poor last year (.910, well below the league average of .914), and should probably rebound. But any significant length of time without Datsyuk and Zetterberg, who each played just 45 games last year, and they're right back where they started. Having young talent is all well and good, but their best players have to be healthy and play like it if they're to succeed.


New York Islanders: The Isles have been awful for years, but there probably isn't a team that's better addressed its problems. They shipped Andrew MacDonald, a drag on any teammate's possession numbers almost across the board, to a divisional rival. They traded for an actual competent goaltender in Jaroslav Halak, whose career averages should be enough to get the Islanders an extra dozen points in the standings. They signed analytics darlings Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski. They traded for solid middle-of-the-lineup defensemen in Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy. They're (hopefully) going to have John Tavares healthy all year. This is a playoff team, without a doubt.

New York Rangers: They lost the bulk of their possession drivers (Brian Boyle, Anton Stralman, Benoit Pouliot) in the summer, and No. 1 center Derek Stepan could be out for at least a few weeks to start the season. On the other hand, their core (Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash, Mark Staal, Chris Kreider, Carl Hagelin, etc.) pretty good, and having one of the world's best goaltenders should drag them into the playoffs with little effort. You can count on Henrik Lundqvist to be worth a huge amount — usually 6-10 points above average, which saves 10-15 goals per year — over the course of the season, and that'll be enough to save the Rangers if things get bad.


Ottawa Senators: Another impossible club to figure out. Since Paul MacLean took over three season ago, they've usually been one of the better possession teams in the league (eighth, sixth, eighth). They have a genuinely good core, led by one of the finest defensemen alive in Erik Karlsson. When playing together, the line of Kyle Turris between Bobby Ryan and Clarke MacArthur was among the best in the league in goal differential (fifth among lines with 500-plus minutes together).

But they traded Jason Spezza for relatively little in return, and they can't fill holes because the team has a minuscule internal budget (which is why they traded Spezza, by the way). They missed the playoffs last year because their goaltending was only about league average, and shooting percentage was subpar — 7.45 percent, 20th in the NHL. They ought to improve due to regression alone, and they'll at least have the puck enough to give them that chance.


Vancouver Canucks: Last season was a disaster in Vancouver, as the Canucks missed the playoffs and fired both their coach and GM as a result. They didn't really get better in the summer, either. But the truth is this roster isn't as bad as its pathetic showing last year. The Sedin twins still have some good years left in the tank, Eddie Lack and newly signed Ryan Miller both remain solid goaltenders, and they have strong defense (Alex Edler, Dan Hamhuis, Chris Tanev, Kevin Bieksa). Depth — there's that word again — could be an issue up front, but they're going to go back to the playoffs this year.

Going to be great

Boston Bruins: For almost as long as Claude Julien has been their coach, the Bruins have been an excellent hockey team, and this year will be no different. Patrice Bergeron still combines with Zdeno Chara to mash opponents' top players into pulp, and the team's depth is among the best in the league. They have one of the two best goalies alive, and they zealously control the puck (53.85 corsi share last season, fourth in the league) meaning that your odds of beating them on any given night are minimal.


They lost a decent amount this summer — no longer having Jarome Iginla will hurt — and are right up against the cap, but they're still going to be one of the best teams in the league, especially because they won't be wasting a roster spot on Shawn Thornton anymore. They also benefit from playing in the deeply mediocre Eastern Conference, which all but guarantees a team of this quality 100-plus points.

Chicago Blackhawks: If this team were in the East they'd have a pretty easy run to the President's Trophy. They were one of only a few top-10 teams to considerably improve this summer, if only because they added an actual second-line center in Brad Richards to replace Michal Handzus, who never compared favorably with any legitimate contender's second-line center. (Brandon Bollig too, now in Calgary, was cap-hogging dead weight.)


The Blackhawks were second in the league in corsi share last year, and were actually a little bit unlucky in terms of their goaltending. If Corey Crawford can be better than average this year (no sure bet), they might be able to separate themselves from the rest of the Central, which is shaping up to be the toughest division in hockey.

Los Angeles Kings: They won the Cup last season and lost nobody of consequence. Their young contributors — Tyler Toffoli, Kyle Clifford, and Jake Muzzin — should continue to improve. Their underlying numbers scream that they will be great. However, it should be noted that the team almost always has some poor shooting numbers. (Twenty-ninth in the league last year, likely a product of Darryl Sutter's system. It's hard to pinpoint what exactly they do to keep their own shot quality so low, but it's consistent; their ES shooting percentage since Sutter took over in 2011 is also 29th, ahead of only Florida). Having Marian Gaborik for 82 should help.


New Jersey Devils: The Devils tend to have very good possession numbers (fifth in the league last season, first the year before) while missing the playoffs. This is because they suffered from bad goaltending — the now-departed Martin Brodeur was a colossal albatross, but has been replaced by the reliably strong Cory Schneider — and couldn't win a shootout. They added a little bit of scoring punch this summer with Mike Cammalleri and (maybe) Martin Havlat, who will need to rebound from some dismal years in San Jose. Plus, those bounces can't go against them forever. The Devils should be a very good team indeed.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Another of the few teams that was very good last year and managed to improve. Pittsburgh's biggest weakness by far has been its lack of depth, so they addressed it over the summer by bringing in a number of useful bottom-of-the-roster guys (Steve Downie, Blake Comeau, Marcel Goc, Nick Spaling). Now it won't all be on Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to drag them to victory. They lost James Neal in a trade to Nashville as part of the effort to shore up that depth, but almost anyone playing Malkin's wing should score 30-plus without too much effort.


Goaltending is always the big question with the Penguins because Marc-Andre Fleury is a netminder in the league still living off a reputation cultivated in a single playoff run six years ago (research suggests that he's been outperformed by his backups for most of the last several seasons), and he's awfully expensive at $5 million per. That said, he's usually good enough to not hurt them in the regular season, and the playoffs are a crapshoot.

San Jose Sharks: You know the drill by now: a dominant team in the regular season that collapses hilariously in the playoffs. That's just a product of bad luck more than anything else, but it scared the team into a number of dumb hyper-reactionary decisions this summer: moving Brent Burns back to defense, stripping Joe Thornton of the captaincy and trying to trade both him and Patrick Marleau, bringing in useless fighters to do... something. They'll still be very, very good thanks to guys like Thornton, Marleau, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Logan Couture, but they might suffer a bit.


St. Louis Blues: Another dominant team that suffered from depth issues, St. Louis has attempted to shore those up by signing Paul Stastny to anchor the second line, and Finnish international Jori Lehtera to potentially do the same for the third. Their goaltending remains iffy at best (Brian Elliott was 27th in even-strength save percentage among goaltenders getting at least 1,200 minutes last year), but it might not matter all that much until the playoffs roll around. Of course, if they don't perform early, coach Ken Hitchcock will probably get canned. And that would likely be disastrous; he's been the engine that's driven the team's success the last few years. They've been top-eight in possession in each of his first three seasons, winning 268 points from 199 games (an 82-game average of 110.4).

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Bolts are the sexy pick to come out of the East this year. They're clearly good at possession (51 percent, 11th in the league) and scoring (240 goals, eighth in the league), and they got better this summer by adding some depth both up front and on the blue line (most notably former Rangers Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman). Rookie of the Year candidate Jonathan Drouin will start the season with the team, and Steven Stamkos probably won't break his leg this year. The question, then, is whether Ben Bishop continues to play at a high level (an excellent .920 save percentage over 108 career games). If he can keep it up, the Lightning should be dominant.


Ryan Lambert is a columnist for Puck Daddy, among other places. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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