It's a fresh new season, and the time of year that every team has plenty of reasons to be optimistic. San Jose and Colorado have star rookies, New Jersey and Florida have new goalies, and Vancouver and the Rangers are among those with new coaches. Every team has a secret weapon that it hopes will make 2013-14 its big year.
Lasting optimism can't be based on a pie-in-the-sky hope, but rather a true and proven team asset. This advantage has to be capable of a meaningful impact, not just two or three points in the final standings.
Even teams off to slow starts, like Edmonton, New Jersey and Ottawa, have almost explosive potential. Their reasons for optimism are just three of many that are not commonly known, or at the very least not to their full extent.
Let's take a look at the biggest reason each NHL team has to look on the bright side of life this season.
All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.
The Anaheim Ducks went from 25th in the NHL in 2011-12 to third place overall last season, and their new checking line may have actually had a lot to do with that.
In 2011-12 the absence of a checking line that could shut down the league's top players forced Anaheim to adopt a power vs power matchup. With their superstars Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf focusing on shutting down opponents, they were unable to generate their usual amount of offense.
Fortunately the acquisition of Daniel Winnik was just what their checking line needed. Along with Saku Koivu and Andrew Cogliano, they lined up against top opposing lines, and quite effectively at that. That gave Perry and Getzlaf the room they needed to bounce back offensively, with Getzlaf tying for 10th overall in points.
Though this advantage may appear minor at first glance, Anaheim's success was tied to its checking line once before. Its Stanley Cup victory in 2007 was largely thanks to "the Nothing Line" of Rob Niedermayer, Sami Pahlsson and Travis Moen. Could it surprise everyone in 2014 with its new one?
Boston's key advantage is no secret—goal prevention.
This talent was on full display in last year's Eastern Conference Final when it held the mighty Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin without a single point throughout that four-game sweep.
Goal prevention has been Boston's modus operandi for years. Over the past six seasons it's allowed an average of just 2.38 goals per game, lowest in the NHL. Even today, it has allowed just five goals in four games this season.
This success has been due to a variety of factors. A sound system developed by coach Claude Julien, elite defensive play from forwards like 2012 Selke winner Patrice Bergeron, elite shut-down play on the blue from players like Zdeno Chara, and amazing goaltending from Tuukka Rask. In fact, Boston's .922 save percentage over the past six seasons is highest in the league by six full points—only 20 points separate second place from last.
No matter which way it does it, the ability to shut down any team at any time is a good reason to be optimistic about yet another Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2014.
While the 2013-14 season may turn out to be a long one for the Buffalo Sabres, their incredible organizational depth gives them every reason to be highly optimistic about the future.
Their current spoiling of top prospects include:
- Big and potentially high-scoring center Michael Grigorenko
- Effective checking-line pivot Zemgus Girgensons
- Left winger Johan Larsson, acquired from Minnesota in the Jason Pominville trade.
- Complete defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen
- 6'5" defenseman Nikita Zadorov
- And still others, like Joel Armia and J.T. Compher.
Even among their established players, Buffalo is also a young team overall. Thanks to this incredible organizational strength, there's every reason to believe that Buffalo will be a highly competitive team in just a few years time.
While some rebuilds can take five years or more, there's every reason to be optimistic that Calgary's will be far shorter.
The Flames are already enjoying the services of Sven Baertschi and last year's first-round draft choice Sean Monahan, who have combined for five goals and nine points through the first five games.
Calgary also has Johnny Gaudreau, Corban Knight, Morgan Klimchuk, Mark Jankowski, Markus Granlund, Jon Gillies, Ben Hanowski, Emile Poirier, Bill Arnold, Max Reinhart, Tyler Wotherspoon, Eric Roy, Mark Cundari and Rushan Rafikov. Obviously most of these players will miss, but the odds are tilted heavily in the team's favor.
Also working in the team's favor is an abundance of cap space—only the New York Islanders have more. Dennis Wideman's $5.25 million cap hit for four more years is their greatest commitment, followed by three players owed around $4.0 million for three more years (Jiri Hudler, David Jones, Mark Giordano). That's it!
With a cupboard full of prospects and only four long-term commitments of any significance, Brian Burke and Jay Feaster have the flexibility they need to ensure Calgary's rebuild is a very brief one.
The Hurricanes have the type of roster strength that can be easily overlooked. Just like it was when they won the Stanley Cup in 2006, Carolina's real advantage is in not looking like the threat that it really is.
It may have finished tied with Calgary for 25th last year, but it actually out-shot its opponents. Its goaltending has been upgraded with Anton Khudobin joining the underrated (yet overpaid) Cam Ward.
Its defensive-minded blue line, which already included unheralded players like Justin Faulk, Tim Gleason and Jay Harrison, was quietly upgraded by Andrej Sekera, Ron Hainsey and Mike Komisarek (not to mention young Ryan Murphy).
Its top line of Eric Staal, Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty is certainly one of the league's most underrated; Jordan Staal is potentially the league's best shut-down center, and Jeff Skinner is one of the league's best kept secrets. The addition of Nathan Gerbe and Radek Dvorak helps elevate its collection of forwards potentially to the top 10.
Carolina has won a Stanley Cup with a roster worse than this. The fact that very few opponents will see this solid team coming is its greatest source of optimism.
Talent doesn't always win; sometimes the Stanley Cup goes to a lucky team that got hot at the right time. The biggest reason for optimism in Chicago is that last year the best team won, and it's hoping the same thing will happen again in 2013-14.
There was an interesting study over at Objective NHL which found that the league's best team wins the President's Trophy just 32 percent of the time, about as often as it makes the Stanley Cup Final, from which it emerges victorious in just 22 percent of NHL seasons.
To reach this conclusion, this study created 30 fictional teams of pre-set abilities, and then a full season (including playoffs) was conducted 20,000 times. The real NHL season, of course, will be played only once.
While there are certainly NHL teams at Chicago's level, there are none above it. The biggest reason for optimism in Chicago is that this season, just like the last, will be one of those times the most talented team finishes on top.
Normally a single player can't be that great a difference maker, especially a rookie who turned 18 about a month ago. But if anyone is capable of shaking loose Colorado's considerable young talent, it very well could be Nathan MacKinnon.
Playing primarily between wingers P.A. Parenteau and Jamie McGinn, MacKinnon leads the Avalanche with six points through the first five games.
Overall the Avalanche have outscored their opponents 18 to four and have won all five of their games in regulation time.
Obviously maintaining this momentum isn't something MacKinnon will do all by himself, but he is the type of player whose impact could be so great that it helps those around him fully execute on their own responsibilities.
Carrying a team on his back is nothing new to Marian Gaborik. For years the talented Slovak was the sole source of optimism on an otherwise disappointing Minnesota Wild team, occasionally helping it remain competitive almost single-handedly.
Even at age 31, there's still every reason to be optimistic that Gaborik can still do it. Still one of the league's fastest players, Gaborik has scored at least 40 goals every other season for years, and is eighth among active players in goals per game.
Gaborik currently leads the Blue Jackets with six points through four games, double any other teammate. There's no question he had some disappointing seasons in New York, but perhaps Gaborik isn't at his most effective unless he's carrying an entire team on his shoulders.
The Dallas Stars have had more than their share of disappointments lately, including missing the postseason every year since reach the conference finals in 2008. The biggest reason for optimism in Dallas is that the Stars are now a brand new team.
Last year their GM was Joe Nieuwendyk, now it is Jim Nill. Last year their coach was Glen Gulutzan, now it is Lindy Ruff.
Of the 20 players in their opening lineup last year, only half kicked off the 2013-14 season with the team. Tyler Seguin, Sergei Gonchar, Valeri Nichushkin, Erik Cole, Shawn Horcoff and Rich Peverley are just a few of the new faces this year.
The Dallas Stars are an entirely new team from head to toe, and the fact that anything is possible is their biggest reason for optimism.
The Detroit Red Wings have always been masters of the puck possession game, and getting pucks on net. In fact, the Red Wings averaged over 30 shots a night last year for the seemingly infinite consecutive time. Their average over the past six seasons is putting rubber on goal 33.3 times per game, tops in the league.
Their opponents, on the other hand, have averaged 30 shots a night only once in the past six seasons, 30.7 in 2010-11. That's one of the reasons they've always managed to get by with relatively average goaltending.
Detroit's advantage will only continue with the addition of Daniel Alfredsson, who averages about 2.4 shots per game, Stephen Weiss (2.1) and the healthy return of Todd Bertuzzi (2.0) and Mikael Samuelsson (2.6). Already Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have combined for 45 shots through the first five games.
You keep putting more pucks on the net than your opponents, and the goals (and wins) will follow. That's always been the reason to be optimistic in Detroit.
No team has as much potential for a huge breakout as the Edmonton Oilers. Their lineup currently includes:
- 21-year-old Taylor Hall was the 2010 first overall selection, and finished top 10 in both assists and points last year.
- 20-year-old Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was the 2011 first overall selection, a master of the power play, and already has 55 assists in just 105 games played.
- 20-year-old Nail Yakupov was the 2012 first overall selection and leading rookie scorer last season.
- 23-year-old clutch scorer Jordan Eberle was 22nd overall in 2008, and already had 160 points in 200 games.
- 23-year-old Justin Schultz led rookie defensemen with 27 points in 48 games and was lights out on the power play.
Each of these players are potential multi-time all-stars, and none of them are more than a year or two away from hitting their strides
Their goaltending may be having some early struggles, their blue line quality may be lacking (though not its depth), and their secondary forward lines may remain below average, all of which would normally add up to another year outside the playoffs.
If just two or three of these top players really break out this year, these weaknesses will start meaning very little and sights could be set a lot higher than merely a postseason appearance.
The Florida Panthers went from first to worst in their division, and luck may have had a lot to do with it.
As Tina Turner might ask, what's luck go to do with it? In Florida's case, it could be a great deal:
- Losing 325 man-games to injury, highest in the NHL
- Having a shooting percentage differential of -3.0 percent, lowest in the league
- A Special Teams Index (power play plus penalty killing percentage) of 94.6 percent, 26th in the NHL
- Taking just ten games to shoot-out, where they secured just 14 points, 22nd in the NHL
These are just some of the glaring ways that the puck luck went against Florida last year.
What happens to teams that get stung by luck like this? A quick look at Hockey Abstract's team luck utility shows that teams can bounce back the very next year. If so, an optimistic view could even have Florida returning to the postseason after just a one-year absence.
The Los Angeles Kings had it all last year. Great coaching, solid puck-possession play, a great top six and a solid defensive blue line. Unfortunately star goalie Jonathan Quick stumbled along to just a .902 save percentage.
The Kings believe in Quick. That's why they had given him the 10-year, $58 million dollar contract, and why they traded away his backup Jonathan Bernier in the offseason.
There is every reason to believe that Quick will bounce back in 2013-14. He posted a .929 save percentage the year before, followed by an absurd .964 on the way to a Conn Smythe, and the team's first ever Stanley Cup.
Goalies sometimes have off seasons, but the great ones are seldom held down for long. The main reason for optimism in Los Angeles is if Quick gets back on his game, and guides an otherwise complete team back to the promised land.
There are several different theories on how to build a championship team, and Minnesota has gone all-in with one of the most popular ones.
The theory is to secure as much elite talent as you possibly can, and then to use so-called "moneypuck" methods to fill the rest of the roster with undervalued bargain-priced players. That's why their star defenseman Ryan Suter actually carries a larger cap hit than their other six defensemen combined.
The elite talent that Minnesota has chosen is certainly up to the task. Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter and now Jason Pominville are all respected as among the top two-way players at their respective positions.
Minnesota's fate is therefore in the hands of how well the rookie and value-priced veterans that fill the balance of their roster can perform. Since that includes a lot of youngsters like Matthew Dumba (19), Jonas Brodin (20), Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter (all 21), there is almost as much uncertainty as there is potential.
Many teams have their eyes on the Wild this year, and if the more optimistic scenarios play out there could be several other clubs adopting the same model.
A strong case for the Calder Trophy could have been made for either of Brendan Gallagher or Alexander Galchenyuk last year. With a full season under their belts, either one has the potential to have the same kind of impact this year as young Norris trophy winner P.K. Subban had last year.
Of the two, Alexander Galchenyuk possesses the most game-changing potential. He and Gallagher have helped unleash some of Lars Eller's offensive potential this year, and together are three of the team's leading four scorers.
Montreal also possesses a great deal of veteran experience wrapped around its collection of young superstars. Seven of its 18 skaters are in their 30s with about a hundred seasons of combined NHL experience between them.
Keep your eyes on Alexander Galchenyuk, who could be the focal point of an offensive explosion in Montreal, one that optimists hope can propel it towards a 25th Stanley Cup.
Nashville suffered more than its fair share of setbacks last season, but there are a lot of new faces in the lineup with the potential to turn things around.
- Blue chip rookie defenseman Seth Jones, who surprisingly fell into Nashville's clutches fourth overall in last year's NHL entry draft
- Fellow stud prospect Filip Forsberg, acquired from Washington at the trade deadline in the Martin Erat deal.
- 37-year-old versatile two-way center Matt Cullen, signed as a free agent after a career season in Minnesota
- Veteran checking-line winger Eric Nystrom, also signed as a free agent.
- Scoring winger Viktor Stalberg, fresh off his Stanley Cup championship in Chicago
While none of these players carries game-changing potential by themselves, together they make the Predators one of the NHL's most improved clubs.
Along with a bounce-back season from superstar goalie Pekka Rinne, Nashville's new faces could hold the key to a complete turnaround in 2013-14.
The most persuasive argument in support of a bounce-back season from 2012's Stanley Cup finalist New Jersey Devils is a look at their shot differential last year.
Despite finishing 23rd overall, the Devils actually outshot their opponents by the widest margin in the NHL, 257 shots. That's 5.35 shots per game!
Some of that difference is from score effects, as teams that are in the lead tend to sit back and let the opponents shoot. But even when considering only close-game situations, the Devils still took 55.0 percent of all attempted shots, the third most in the NHL, according to Behind the Net.
While the Devils are off to another poor start, winless through their first six, there is still plenty of reason for optimism in the long season that remains. Even in their struggles, the Devils are still taking 51.5 percent of all attempted shots in close-game situations, a style that should still result in a postseason return if it continues.
There are only a few steps left for the New York Islanders to take before becoming a legitimate contender, one of which they took this offseason.
Having built two solid lines, the first around Hart finalist John Tavares and the second around undervalued star Frans Nielsen, the Islanders only needed to improve their depth around them.
Among the players the Islanders added this offseason are:
- Hard-hitting veteran winger Cal Clutterbuck, for $2.75M per season
- Skilled forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard, for $2.0M
- Underrated free agent Peter Regin, for just $750,000
Added to their existing collection of value-priced players, the Islanders have built a complete set of forwards in a very cost-effective fashion.
A similar upgrade of the blue line or goaltending depth and the Islanders could begin to challenge the league's better teams. Even this one improvement is enough cause to hope for another postseason appearance this year.
The Vancouver Canucks topped the NHL two straight seasons, averaging 114 points a season, thanks to an innovative player-usage approach adopted by head coach Alain Vigneault.
According to Vigneault's model, players like Manny Malhotra played virtually all of their shifts in the defensive zone, while Ryan Kesler's line took on the top opponents, leaving the Sedin line to play almost exclusively in the offensive zone, and against secondary lines.
This type of role specialization led to Art Ross trophies for each of the Sedins, a Hart Trophy for Henrik, and a Selke trophy for Ryan Kesler.
Despite their slow start, the Rangers could potentially enjoy a comparable level of success once Vigneault gets his system in place in New York.
Take a team that finished tied for the final playoff position, remove their Norris Trophy-winning defenseman and their leading scorer, and what do you get? An improvement!
The truth is that the Ottawa Senators were poised for a season near the top of the Eastern Conference when gross injury misfortune befell them. Even starting goalie Craig Anderson was out for a stretch.
The Senators also went an unlucky 5-10 in regulation games decided by a single goal. A seventh-place finish in the conference was actually their worst-case scenario.
This year, Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson are both back in action and at full health. They also added Bobby Ryan, who, at age 26, is actually older than half the team. The team is young, skilled and optimistic.
The Philadelphia Flyers have spent to the limit, and have big money invested long term in several highly skilled veterans. They want big results, and they want it immediately. Enter Craig Berube.
Peter Laviolette is actually one of the league's most underrated coaches, but after a 1-5 start they brought in untried bench boss Craig Berube.
Berube has been the head coach of a team (at any level) just once in his life, but that's the time he turned around a terrible AHL Philadelphia Phantoms team, back in 2007-08.
Now there's a big difference between the AHL and the NHL, and also a big difference between someone who has turned around a team once and a coach who has done it repeatedly and consistently, but Berube might be just the man for the job.
The Flyers have spent the money, have the talent and Berube might be the surprise coach who brings it all together.
The Phoenix Coyotes are at their best when they're working as a team, all committed to Dave Tippett's system, much as they are this season.
There is a statistic called "close game Fenwick" which estimates the percentage of the time a team has possession of the puck by working out what percentage of all attempted shots were theirs. Since teams play differently when sitting on a lead, only situations where the game is close are considered.
By this measure the Coyotes are doing very well this season, controlling the puck 61.7 percent of the time, third best in the NHL, per Behind the Net.
What's the big deal with this fancy statistic? It's remarkably predictive power. Three of last year's top four by close game Fenwick all made the conference finals: Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles. In fact, the Kings, 2011's surprise Stanley Cup champions, actually entered the postseason with the fourth-best close game Fenwick in the league.
If Phoenix continues to play well and control the play, it could find itself with far more success than anyone expected.
When he's healthy, Sidney Crosby is the best player in the world, and when it has the services of the best player in the world, Pittsburgh is tough to beat.
Through Sunday October 13th, Sidney Crosby leads the NHL with nine points in five games. His career points per game is a remarkable 1.42, highest among active players and fourth all time. Only Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Mike Bossy have scored at a higher clip than Sid the Kid.
To make matters worse for their opponents, second-line center Evgeni Malkin is also healthy, and has five points in five games. These two superstars also unleash the offensive talent of their wingers, which include Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis for Crosby and Jussi Jokinen and Beau Bennett for Malkin.
The Penguins are currently averaging four goals a game, and have yet to score fewer than three. If Crosby (and Malkin) stay healthy all season, the Penguins could retain their regular-season conference scoring title, and possibly take a run at yet another Stanley Cup.
The St. Louis Blues have always been one of the league's best defensive teams, especially under defensive-minded coach Ken Hitchcock.
Over the past six seasons the Blues have allowed just 27.4 shots per game, the second-lowest total in the NHL. Last year it was a downright miserly 24.2 shots allowed per game, and it's just 26.5 so far this season. How are teams supposed to beat the Blues with shots so hard to come by?
The key to their success isn't just Hitchcock's system, but also a roster of disciplined two-way forwards like David Backes and T.J. Oshie. Add Jay Bouwmeester on the top line, and it's a wonder opponents are even getting as many shots as they are.
The optimism in St. Louis is grounded on the reality that opposing teams are going to get very few chances to score, giving the Blues the opportunity to win every single night.
In just a few short games Tomas Hertl has unleashed the passion in the San Jose Sharks and their fans, mostly with his inspirational scoring, but also in defiance to the hostility with which the other teams responded.
San Jose has actually been a dominant team for years, and in almost every single way. Over the past six years no one has more points nor fewer regulation losses, and only Pittsburgh has more wins.
They've missed the postseason only once since 1996-97 and if not for a single point in 2005-06 they'd have had seven consecutive 100-point seasons.
This year the San Jose Sharks have been on a tear, largely thanks to young Czech Tomas Hertl, who has seven goals in five games, including a four-goal night against the New York Rangers. In all, San Jose has outscored its opponents 24-7 en route to five straight regulation victories.
In the end he may prove to be just one of many strong rookies, but momentum can be a funny thing. This hot start may be just what it takes to finally propel one of the league's consistently best teams to their first ever Stanley Cup appearance.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have one of the NHL's best and deepest pools of prospects. This list includes:
- Jonathan Drouin, last year's second overall selection in the NHL entry draft
- Forward Vladislav Namestnikov
- High-scoring QMJHL winger Nikita Kucherov
- AHL 2012 defenseman of the year Mark Barberio
- Giant 6'8" defenseman Andrej Sustr (already in the lineup)
- Winger Adam Erne
- KHL goalie Andrei Vasilevski
- Defenseman Slater Koekkoek
There's arguably no other NHL team with the same depth of prospects, nor one with a better blue-chip prospect on top.
It's almost crazy to think how good the Lightning will be once the bulk of these players join Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman on the big club. Tampa Bay could soon become one of the league's more exciting teams, and for years to come.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are off to a hot start, with only a single loss in their first six games, in outright defiance of the claims of the analytics folks.
Despite being outshot 205 to 185, and currently ranking 25th in puck-possession numbers, per Behind the Net, the Maple Leafs have found a way to win by scoring on 11.9 percent of their shots while keeping their opponents to just 7.3 percent.
While it's true that recent teams in similar circumstances all eventually took nasty tumbles, the Toronto Maple Leafs could be different. Even though the Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators, Minnesota Wild, Anaheim Ducks, Edmonton Oilers and essentially every team that has relied on large shooting percentage differentials to win despite getting outshot and outplayed every night all came down to earth almost as if it were a physical law of the universe, there has been absolutely no sign of this happening to Toronto in well over 50 games now.
Many mainstream hockey experts have stated their staunch opposition to these types of analytics, and are using the current Toronto Maple Leafs as their poster child. If they're right, and Corsi is indeed wrong, then it's going to be another great year for the Buds.
Last season was a tough one for Vancouver, whose previously proven system wasn't working anymore. John Tortorella is the kind of coach known for shaking things loose.
It's always hard to tell when a great team should stay the course after a rough season, or whether it should reload with some fundamental changes. With just one more year left on the contracts of Henrik and Daniel Sedin before they become unrestricted free agents, the Canucks have one season to correctly evaluate the situation and make a decision, a season they intend to spend with John Tortorella behind the bench.
Not only does Tortorella bring a Stanley Cup and about 20 seasons of NHL experience as either an assistant or a head coach to the job, but he also brings a passion and an energy that challenges even his star players to bring their best each and every night.
Tortorella brings a lot of optimism to Vancouver. Either he will get the most out of its remaining talent, or he will make its next move obvious.
The Washington Capitals have scored on 21.7 percent of their power-play opportunities over the past six years, the highest in the NHL.
Last year they converted on an absurd 26.8 percent, which was reminiscent of their obscene back-to-back 25.2 percent seasons in 2008-09 and 2009-10. This year, through five games, they've made good on six of 19 opportunities, or 31.6 percent. Almost half their goals have come with the man advantage.
The key to their power play is obviously Alexander Ovechkin, but how many goals would he score without a playmaker like Nicklas Backstrom or a power-play quarterback like Mike Green on the point? This year they even have Toronto castoff Mikhail Grabovski helping out to the tune of four points in the first five games.
Washington is by no means a dominant team in any other respect, but its power play makes it a potentially deadly force on any given night.
The NHL realignment helped out the Winnipeg Jets more than any other NHL team, partly because it negated last year's disadvantages.
While their schedule itself won't necessarily be any easier, the realignment will cut down on their travel, and also move them to a conference where only six of the 14 teams will miss the postseason. This is fantastic news for an otherwise bubble team.
Last year the Jets missed the postseason by just two points—a single win. While the team has been patient thus far, it wants results this year, and the move to the Western Conference might do the trick all by itself.
The Jets are a solid team with good forward depth, a fantastic one-two offensive punch on the blue line and now the advantages of a more geographically friendly division. Postseason, here they come.